Despite increasing deaths, the U.S. population as a whole continues to grow, boosted by immigration from abroad and relatively higher births among the mostly younger migrants from Mexico, Latin America and Asia.
"These counties are in a pretty steep downward spiral," said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer and sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire, who researched the findings. "The young people leave and the older adults stay in place and age. Unless something dramatic changes — for instance, new development such as a meatpacking plant to attract young Hispanics — these areas are likely to have more and more natural decrease."
The areas of natural decrease stretch from industrial areas near Pittsburgh and Cleveland to the vineyards outside San Francisco to the rural areas of east Texas and the Great Plains. A common theme is a waning local economy, such as farming, mining or industrial areas. They also include some retirement communities in Florida, although many are cushioned by a steady flow of new retirees each year.
In the last year, Maine joined West Virginia as the only two entire states where deaths exceed births, which have dropped precipitously after the recent recession. As a nation, the U.S. population grew by just 0.75 percent last year, stuck at historically low levels not seen since 1937.
Johnson said the number of dying counties is rising not only because of fewer births but also increasing mortality as 70 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 move into their older years. "I expect natural decrease to remain high in the future," he said.
Among the 20 fastest-growing large metropolitan areas last year, 16 grew faster than in 2011 and most of them are located in previously growing parts of the Sun Belt or Mountain West. Among the slowest-growing or declining metropolitan areas, most are now doing worse than in 2011 and they are all located in the Northeast and Midwest.