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Be Careful! Labeling a County as “Dying” is Dangerous

Posted By briana On March 4, 2011 @ 3:43 am In Census Myths,Redistricting | 3 Comments

Written by: Director Robert Groves

A recent syndicated newspaper article had the title of “Census estimates show 1 in 4 US counties are dying” – an attention-getting message. It referred to estimates of the addition or decline of population in counties due to “natural increase.” Natural increase is the excess of births over deaths in a population. The Census Bureau’s population estimates program estimates this increase for counties throughout the country each year. The article noted that over 750 of the approximately 3100 counties (about 24%) in the country show an excess of deaths over births. These were the “dying” counties.

Jumping from observations of counties that show no natural increase in a year to labeling them as “dying” is quite a leap. Natural increase can affect the population size but in-migration and out-migration can also affect the size of a county. Together, the ups and downs of county populations are part of the dynamic nature of our country. A year of loss does not mean an inevitable course to death.

A quick look at the pattern of county-level populations going up and down, based on census data, from 1960-2010 shows that a county losing population in one ten year period doesn’t have a lot of implication that it will continue to lose. Indeed, only about 8% of the counties have lost population in each of the five consecutive ten year periods, from the 1960 Census through the 2010 Census. (This is much lower than the 24% labeled as “dying” based on the one year experience.) About 26% of the counties shift back and forth between gaining and losing population (with 2 or 3 of the 5 decades losing and the rest of the decades seeing an increased population). About 37% of the counties have seen growth in all five decades. (see chart below)


County-Level Experience of Growth
or Decline, 1960-2010
Percentage of
5 decades of growth     37.3%
4 decades of growth, 1 decade of decline 18.6
3 decades of growth, 2 decades of decline 14.5
2 decades of growth, 3 decades of decline 11.5
1 decade of growth,   4 decades of decline 9.6
5 decades of decline

                           Source: US decennial Census data, 1960-2010

Labeling a county as dying based on a brief period of time ignores the ebb and flow of our dynamic country.

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