When the Census Bureau releases its annual population estimates, we often focus on counties and metropolitan areas with the largest numerical growth or the fastest growth rates. Yet the majority of counties are not growing. Nationwide, 1,660 of 3,142 counties, or 53%, lost population between April 1, 2010 and July 1, 2014. In North Carolina, 49 of the state’s 100 counties lost population.
This is a marked increase over a decade prior. Between 2000 and 2004, just over 1,250 or 40% of the nation’s counties lost population. In North Carolina, only 10 counties lost population over this time period. These shifts differed across the four Census Bureau regions.
A decade ago, the Midwest was the only region where the majority of counties lost population between 2000 and 2004. In 2014, it maintained its position as the region with the largest share of counties experiencing population loss since the 2010 census: 62%. Two other regions, the Northeast and South, also had the majority of their counties lose population between 2010 and 2014.
While there may be variation in the specific counties that lost population, the share of Western counties losing population between 2000 and 2004 was virtually the same as the share that lost population between 2010 and 2014 (33% v. 34%). In contrast, the proportion of counties losing population in the Northeast doubled over this time period. Between 2000 and 2004, only 29% of Northeast counties lost population, the smallest share among the regions. A decade later, 59% of Northeastern counties lost population between 2010 and 2014.
Many counties, particularly rural counties, have long experienced population losses from domestic migration. In recent years, population losses from out migration have been compounded by rising numbers of deaths and fertility rates that have not yet returned to pre-recession levels. Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy, notes that a record number of deaths occurred between July 1, 2013 and July 1, 2014.
Nationwide, 1,920 counties (61%) had more individuals move out than moved in between 2010 and 2014. (47 North Carolina counties had net out migration over this time period.) In 408 of these counties, there was sufficient population growth from natural increase, or more births than deaths, to offset population losses from net out migration.
Natural decrease, or more deaths than births, was less common than net out migration over this time period. Between 2010 and 2014, just over 1,100 counties (35%) experienced natural decrease; 47 of these counties were in North Carolina. Nationally, there was sufficient net in migration in 202 of these counties to overcome population losses from natural decrease. Retiree destinations, such as Brunswick County in North Carolina, will frequently experience population growth from in-migration in conjunction with natural decrease.
While both of these factors play a role in population change, migration was the key factor in county population losses nationwide. Among the counties that lost population, 91% experienced net out migration between 2010 and 2014. Just over half (54%) of counties that lost population experienced natural decrease. Among the 49 North Carolina counties that lost population between 2010 and 2014, these factors were more evenly split: 38 of these counties had net out migration and 38 had natural decrease (27 experienced both).
Note: The District of Columbia is included in this analysis as a county.