WASHINGTON — Rural America is losing population for the first time, largely because of waning interest among Baby Boomers to move to far-flung locations for retirement and recreation, census estimates indicate.
Long weighed down by dwindling populations in farming and coal towns and the movement of young people to cities, rural counties are being hit by sputtering growth in retirement and recreation areas, once residential hot spots for Baby Boomers.
The estimates, as of July, 2012, show would-be retirees opting to stay put in urban areas near jobs.
Recent weakness in the economy means some Boomers have less savings than a decade ago to buy a vacation home in the countryside, which often becomes a full-time residence after retirement.
About 46.2 million people, or 15 percent of the U.S. population, live in rural counties, which spread across 72 percent of the nation’s land area. From 2011 to 2012, those nonmetro areas lost more than 40,000 people, a 0.1 percent drop. The bureau reported a 0.01 percent loss from 2010 to 2011, but that was thought statistically significant and could be adjusted.
Rural areas, which include manufacturing and farming as well as scenic retirement spots, have seen substantial movement of residents to urban areas before. But the changes coincide with sharp falls in U.S. birth rates and an aging population, resulting in a first-ever annual loss.
U.S. migration data show older Americans are most inclined to live in rural counties until about 74 before moving closer to more populated locations.
The oldest of the nation’s 76 million Boomers turn 74 in 2020, meaning the window is closing for that group to help small towns grow.
“What Baby Boomers will do will be key to rural migration and growth,” said Jason Henderson, former vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, now associate dean of the Purdue University college of agriculture.
Lucas County is becoming slightly older, said Ben Bolender, a demographer for the international migration branch of the Census Bureau. He said the county’s 65-and-older population “has increased from just over 13 percent in 2010 to 13.8 percent in July of 2012.”
Mr. Bolender said Lucas’ population seems to be falling especially since July, 2010. From 2010 to 2012, the population dropped from about 440,000 residents to about 438,000 residents, he said.
At the same time, minority residents in the county have increased from 29 percent to 29.5 percent. Minorities are defined as “anybody who is Hispanic or any race other [than] white alone,” Mr. Bolender said.
The state is following similar trend, he said “Although the population of the state is growing, it is becoming more minority over time and in terms of aging, Lucas County is actually a bit younger,” he said.
Other census findings:
● The 65-and-older population grew 4.3 percent between 2011 and 2012, to 43.1 million, or 13.7 percent of the U.S. population.
● Florida had the highest share of residents 65 and older, 18.2 percent, followed by Maine and West Virginia. Alaska had the lowest, 8.5 percent, followed by Utah and Texas. By county, Florida’s Sumter County was tops in the share of the 65-plus age group, 49.3 percent.
● The 85-and-older population increased about 3 percent from 2011 to 2012, to almost 5.9 million. The number of centenarians rose to almost 62,000.
● The nation’s median age rose to 37.5, up from 37.3 in 2011.