Western Pennsylvania's rural areas increasingly struggle with population loss

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James DeBlasio has lived all 88 of his years in southern Lawrence County, where he's a longtime Taylor Township supervisor and has seen many of the people he grew up with move away or die -- with no young people coming in to replace them.

Like most of rural Western Pennsylvania, and the non-urban sections of West Virginia and eastern Ohio as well, his is an area where census counts and estimates have noted a population decline due to multiple factors that appear hard to reverse.

The trends have been especially rough in Taylor, which experienced a 13.6 percent population decline between 2000 and 2010. Of its 1,052 residents, more than twice as many are over age 65 as under age 18. That ratio is practically unheard of among municipalities and doesn't bode well for the township's future.

"I don't think there's been a new house built here in 10 years, maybe longer," Mr. DeBlasio noted.

Even as the seven-county Pittsburgh metropolitan region (Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland) has made news by recently stemming population decline -- due largely to several years of growth in Allegheny County -- there's been little to report positively for the broader area surrounding it.

PG graphic: Tough Population Trends
(Click image for larger version)

Other than the Pittsburgh metro and in the Morgantown area, where West Virginia University has been a recession-proof anchor providing an influx of the same sort that Penn State provides to Centre County, every other tri-state county among 22 of them lost people between the 2000 census and the count in 2010. They also all shrank again in the next two years, based on estimates the U.S. Census Bureau released this month for July 2012.

The counties surrounding the Pittsburgh and Morgantown metropolitan areas tend to be older, to attract few immigrants, to have low birth rates and to lose many of their young people to either those two cities or other places where they sense greater economic opportunities than in their hometowns. In most of those rural areas, more people die than are born each year -- which has also been the case for more than a decade in Allegheny County, but it's now offsetting such losses with in-migration from job-seekers and students.

"Western Pennsylvania is not alone in this. If you look at all of Appalachia, if you look at eastern Ohio, the traditional Rust Belt, you see a similar thing -- out-migration and more deaths than births," observed Jonathan Johnson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, an agency of the state Legislature.

"This has not been happening overnight," he said. "You're not going to see tumbleweeds going down the street or anything like that. It's a slow, incremental process -- these places cannot grow naturally."

East and west

Across the state, Mr. Johnson's data show two trends: rural Pennsylvania's population pattern lags behind that of urban counties, and Western Pennsylvania's rural counties are in far worse shape, growth-wise, than their eastern counterparts.

Using the average statewide population density of 284 people per square mile as the dividing line, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania classifies 19 counties with greater density than that as urban -- including just Allegheny, Beaver, Erie and Westmoreland on the western side of the state -- and the other 48 counties with less-than-average density as rural.

The center found that the rural counties grew by 2.2 percent between 2000 and 2010, but all of that was due to the eastern rural counties. The 27 western rural counties declined by 0.9 percent during that decade, and they lost another 0.5 percent from 2010-12. The state's urban counties grew by 3.9 percent from 2000-10 and 0.8 percent in the two years since.

For rural counties statewide, 16.8 percent of the population is 65 or older, compared with 14.9 percent of urban counties. There were 4,738 more deaths than births in rural counties in 2011, but 17,147 more births than deaths in urban counties.

International immigrants and other minorities tend to have more children and younger average ages than the white population, and Eastern Pennsylvania -- in both urban and rural areas -- has attracted many more of them in recent years than has Western Pennsylvania. In general, the eastern side of the state has had more job opportunities for newcomers, and some rural sections of it, such as the Poconos, have attracted people escaping New York's density.

Mr. Johnson said one thing that could halt population decline in many rural counties is the job growth tied to Marcellus Shale drilling, "but there's not enough data yet to assess that change."

John Cromartie, a geographer who analyzes rural population trends for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, said most rural parts of the country have been shrinking since 2006 as a result of the national recession -- for many of the same reasons related to age and economics as in Pennsylvania.

"The opportunities aren't as good for someone starting out in the labor market in rural areas," Mr. Cromartie said. "If you're a young go-getter, gaining skills, maybe going to college, trying to find where those skills are best used, you're going to move to the city. Young people like to move to the city anyway -- it's just been a common theme of modern society."

Gap grows nationwide

Of the nation's 3,143 counties, 1,135 of them now experience more deaths than births annually, which used to be a rare equation. Counties outside of metropolitan areas hold 16 percent of the nation's population, compared with 21 percent in 1990, and the gap between urban and rural population growth keeps widening, according to Mr. Cromartie.

The entire state of West Virginia has more deaths than births now, notes Christiadi, a demographer (who goes by just one name) with the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Maine is the only other state where that is the case.

Monongalia and Preston counties have surged in population in this century, due to gains in both WVU students and the employees of the university and affiliated health centers, Christiadi noted. Other than in the eastern panhandle -- the part of West Virginia closest to Washington, D.C. -- it's hard to find positive population news, he said.

"I guess jobs would be the one factor to really have a turnaround," Christiadi said. "We've been hoping that natural gas would be one of the things to help turn things around."

Prisons can also help, in that regard. Since 2000, the population of little Forest County in northern Pennsylvania has grown by 55 percent, due to inmates inhabiting a new prison built there. More typical since then are declines such as 10.1 percent in Elk County, 6.4 percent in Greene County and 6.2 percent in Warren County.

Even some of the less dense counties within the Pittsburgh metropolitan area remain counter to the metro area's rebound, with Fayette County declining by 8.7 percent since 2000 and 0.7 percent since 2010, and Armstrong shrinking by 5.5 percent since 2000 and 0.8 percent since 2010.

Mr. DeBlasio's home county of Lawrence has lost 5 percent of its people since 2000 and keeps losing them, according to the census bureau, and there's no prison in the works to offset that.

The Taylor Township supervisor isn't sure what, if anything, will change local trends, which have also hurt the township's tax collections and budget. He noted he saw five houses for sale on two streets on his way to the post office the other day.

"We'd like more young people, for both the activity and the population, but we just don't have it here," Mr. DeBlasio said.


Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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