Rural America Population Slips Farther Than Expected

THE JOURNAL RECORD, August 31, 1990 | Go to article overview
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Rural America Population Slips Farther Than Expected


By Felicity Barringer WASHINGTON - From the Mississippi River delta to the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky to the high plains of North Dakota, rural America suffered far greater losses in population during the 1980s than had been expected, according to preliminary figures from the 1990 census.

The rural losses, combined with big gains in thriving coastal metropolitan areas like Seattle, Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla., are expected to mean that 19 of the country's 435 congressional seats will change hands among the states, with New York losing three and California gaining seven. That would give California 52, or 12 percent of the nation's total.

The preliminary estimate for the country's population was about 245.8 million, based on the mail return of census forms and follow-up door-to-door head counts.

But Census Bureau officials said efforts to count people missed in those initial surveys had already added or will add at least 3 million people, bringing the national total near 250 million. That figure would be about even with the bureau's earlier estimates.

More than at any time since World War I, the population increase was driven by immigration, both legal and illegal. Immigrants - 7 million to 9 million over the decade, largely from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean - represent at least one-third and perhaps as much as 40 percent of the estimated increase of 23 million people, according to data from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and analysis by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based research group.

That fact may be a slight damper on Republican strategists' enthusiasm for the new census numbers. The areas that are the biggest gainers, particularly around Los Angeles and throughout Florida, are areas that helped put Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the White House.

But at least in California, as much as 30 percent of the growth is due to immigration. Whether the new Asian and Mexican immigrants there will follow the immigrant tradition of voting Democratic is not yet clear.

The portrait of America that emerges from the preliminary census data reveals a country continuing and consolidating the trends of the 1960s and 1970s, when more and more of the population turned southward and westward and once-powerful manufacturing industries of the East and Middle West crumbled.

In fact, the new data show, at least 55 percent of Americans now live in the the South and the West, up from 52 percent in 1980 and 48 percent in 1970.

By contrast, only 20 percent of Americans live in the Northeast, down from 21.7 a decade ago, and 24 percent live in the Middle West, down from nearly 26 percent in 1980.

In the 1980s, the new census data show, a growing number of retirees went looking for sun, sea and mountain peaks, and the new worlds of high-technology manufacturing and a growing service sector created boom towns along the California and Florida coasts.

``In the 1970s, you had Sun Belt growth, but a lot of it was in the small metropolitan areas and non-metropolitan areas,'' said William H. Frey, a demographer from the University of Michigan.

``In the 1980s, we've flipped in the other direction, toward more metropolitan growth. The Sun Belt is still growing faster than the snow belt, but in general the growth in the 1980s centered on the metropolitan areas around the coasts.''

All the decade's demographic trends seemed to converge in California, which, according to Jeffrey Passell of the Urban Institute, became home to 25 percent to 30 percent of the decade's immigrants.

But the high-technology industries and the expanding service economies in everything from software development to law to recreation to real estate also drove dramatic growth rates in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose.

Seven counties in California have more than a million people.

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