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The Silent Decline

Forty years ago, Youngstown and the surrounding Mahoning County in northeastern Ohio was booming. Auto plants rolled sleek new models onto showroom floors across America. Steel mills belched fire, and their acrid smoke permeated the skyline—a testament to the blue-collar jobs and affluence of the region’s hard-working residents.

Those days are long gone. The steel and auto plants are mostly shuttered. Jobs are scarce and poverty is high. Young and ambitious people who couldn’t find work moved away. Only the least mobile residents—mostly old folks—stuck around. Now, even they’re fading away.

The county is dying, quite literally. The number of people being buried in Mahoning County is greater than the number of children being born. According to recently released U.S. Census figures, 2,917 people died between July 1, 2008 and July 1, 2009. In the same period, 2,552 babies were born.

Demographers have fancy terms for this called “negative natural increase” or “natural decrease.” Whatever the nomenclature, they say it’s spreading across the land. Census figures show that a quarter of the nation’s counties are gradually fading away as old people die faster than new babies can take their place. Overall, some 760 of the nation’s 3,142 counties are experiencing a natural decrease in population, according to a recent Associated Press report.

Kenneth Johnson, a sociology professor and demographer at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, is one of the relatively few people alarmed by the trend. He said during a phone interview that even social scientists haven’t paid much attention to the statistics that show entire communities seemingly disappearing off the map.

Most Americans are unaware of the dying communities because most U.S. counties experience more births than deaths. In total, nearly two children are born in America for every one person who dies. In some states, the rate is much higher, such as Utah, where the rate is almost 4-1 births to deaths.

But in those communities where the decline is occurring it’s likely to continue. And Johnson says it will undoubtedly get worse.

“Once natural decrease occurs in a county, the probability of it occurring again is vey high,” he said. “What we’re seeing isn’t new or occurring all of a sudden; it’s been decades in the making. As older people move beyond child-bearing age in these communities, there’s nobody left to produce the next generation.”

Johnson said the places with high rates of natural decrease tends to be places that lack jobs and are composed of older white residents. That, in turn, leads to a pair of interrelated traits that spell doom for those counties. First, the resident population isn’t having children. Second, without jobs, few young people stay and work-hungry immigrants—especially Latinos, who tend to have larger families than other population groups—don’t relocate in those communities.

Another demographer familiar with the issue, Tom Finnerty, associate director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at Youngstown State University, believes immigration is the vital cog in producing jobs and growing the population in many of these dying communities.

“Of course, in places like Youngstown, immigration has been viewed as a threat to the existing labor force, a means by employers to keep down wages,” he said. “But we’re well past the point where we can afford to think like that. Immigration is not a threat in these communities; it’s a necessity.”

As these disturbing trends eviscerate once-vibrant and vital parts of America, conservative leaders in Washington want to make matters worse with severe cuts in assistance to programs that are critically needed in dying communities.

In Youngstown, for example, city leaders attempted during the past decade to manage its declining population with an ambitious plan to direct limited resources to viable neighborhoods and prevent abandoned lots from becoming more than blighted eyesores. But as the recession hit the city the plan became almost entirely dependent on $2.7 million in federal assistance from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Programs such as these are sure to be terminated if congressional conservatives get their way.

Other programs, such as assistance to help rural communities hook up to the Internet, are likely to disappear, too. That, says Johnson, would be devastating to the shrinking rural counties.

“Companies look at things like physical infrastructure such as road and bridges in deciding where to put plants and offices, but they also look at whether a small town has high-speed internet service,” he said. “If the cutbacks are going to come, it’s things like the Internet that will be cut. And if that happens, you’ve just pounded another nail in the rural American coffin.”

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.