Is Rural America Dying? A Snapshot of Retirement Trends and 'Natural Decrease'

By Glasgow, Nina | Aging Today, July/August 2012 | Go to article overview

Is Rural America Dying? A Snapshot of Retirement Trends and 'Natural Decrease'


Glasgow, Nina, Aging Today


Early in 2011, the Associated Press released a wire story, "Census Estimates Show 1 in 4 U.S. Counties are Dying" (Associated Press, February 2011). In 2002, 985 U.S. counties experienced what's called natural decrease, where there are more deaths than births- the highest number at any one time in the history of the country. But over time, 1,606 counties have experienced the phenomenon for at least one year, according to Kenneth Johnson's article in Rural Sociology, "The Continuing Incidence of Natural Decrease in American Counties" (76:1, 2011).

It is much more common for rural than urban areas to experience natural decrease, and natural decrease areas are concentrated primarily in the Great Plains and Western Corn Belt, with similar concentrations across the upper Midwest and down the Appalachian mountains, as was pointed out in a 2012 article I wrote with David Brown for the Journal of Rural Studies, "Rural Ageing in the United States: Trends and Contexts" (28:2, 2012).

The first two regions are predominantly agricultural areas; forest industries historically dominated the economic activity of the upper Midwest; and in the Appalachian region mining was, and is still to some extent, the dominant economic activity. This may explain the chronic outmigration of young adults, who often move to cities in search of better educational and job opportunities. When young adults leave, they take with them their childbearing capacity. The Journal of Rural Studies article also states that natural decrease, however, is not a result of low fertility rates but of age structure- the ratio of older adults to those of childbearing age is typically very high in natural decrease areas, producing more deaths than births.

The Rural Retirement Trend

Rural retirement migration refers to the in-movement of older people, at or near the time of their retirement, most often from cities to rural areas. It's a prominent trend that has been occurring in rural destinations since the 1970s, as reported in my book with David Brown, Rural Retirement Migration (Dordrecht: Springer, 2008). The number of counties designated as rural retirement counties has varied from approximately 400 to 500 from one decade to the next.

Rural retirement destinations are defined as counties with 15 percent or higher net in-migration- population moving across at least a county boundary- of persons 60 years and older during a specific decade (www.ers.usda.gov/ Data/Typology Codes). Rural retirement destinations are typically beautiful, amenity-rich areas with lots of outdoor recreational opportunities, and they gain population growth from older inmigration. Such counties are scattered rather widely across the country, with large concentrations in the Southeast and Southwest Sun Belt regions.

Most don't think of rural retirement counties as natural decrease areas, but slightly more than half of rural retirement counties have become natural decrease counties, too, as shown in "Rural Ageing" and Kenneth Johnson and Daniel Lichter's chapter, "Rural Retirement Destinations, Natural Decrease and the Shared Demographic Destinies of Elderly and Hispanics," forthcoming in Rural Aging in 21st Century America (Dordrecht: Springer, 2012).

Natural decrease in the Great Plains and the Corn Belt has been happening for 20 or more years, whereas counties with an overlap between older in-migration and natural decrease are a more recent phenomenon, according to Johnson and Lichter. …

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Is Rural America Dying? A Snapshot of Retirement Trends and 'Natural Decrease'
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