June 13, 2013

Rural America posts first-ever loss in population

By Hannah Dreier and Hope Yen / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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U.S. migration data show that older Americans are most inclined to live in rural counties until about age 74, before moving closer to more populated locations.

"What baby boomers will do will be key to rural migration and growth," said Jason Henderson, a former vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City who is now associate dean of the Purdue University College of Agriculture. "Right now, we're just at the forefront of baby boomers entering retirement age, but many have been delaying retirement." Some will decide the time for moving back to the country has passed, he said.

Henderson expects a bit of a rebound for scenic retirement destinations as the economy improves, but nowhere close to the levels seen before the recession.

The scenic retirement destinations experiencing lower growth stretch wide, from the Upper Great Lakes and Appalachia in the eastern U.S. to the Sun Belt, the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks and the Intermountain West. Boomer migration to many of these areas had typically yielded greater economic activity, including construction, landscaping and service-sector jobs that brought in workers of all age groups.

In Lyon County, growth boomed from 2000 to 2007, quickly lifting the population from 35,000 to 52,000. By 2007, however, growth began to wane amid recession and rising gasoline costs. Since then, the county has posted one of the nation's worst population turnabouts: from 6.9 percent annual growth from 2000 to 2007, to a 0.7 percent annual loss between 2007 and 2012.

Retirees were "coming out of California, selling the house for a lot of money and coming up here and getting something nicer," said Fernley Mayor LeRoy Goodman, 71, citing his town's prime location near an interstate highway with easy driving access to Reno's casinos. "People can also walk out their back door and go hiking in the desert. The climate is pretty good; we don't have a lot of snow or rain."

Due to changing baby boomer migration, rural retirement counties grew 0.4 percent annually from 2007-2012, down from 1.6 percent annually from 2000-2007. During the housing boom, these retirement destinations were growing faster than the rate of the nation as a whole but are now increasing more slowly. The overall U.S. population is now growing by about 0.8 percent each year.

In Florida, almost all counties experienced slower growth or a reversal of boomer population growth since 2010, said Mark Mather, an associate vice president for the Population Reference Bureau who analyzed the numbers.

Other counties showing sharp drop-offs in the boomer population include Forest County, Pa.; Trinity County, Texas; Middlesex County, Va.; and Banks County, Ga.

"The recent decline in migration rates among baby boomers is significant because boomers were expected to jump-start economic growth in rural America," said Mather, noting that parts of the rural Midwest and Appalachia had been losing population for decades. "But since the recession, we've seen more boomers aging in place. This is bad news because as baby boomers get older, they are less likely to move."

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, at 18.2 percent, followed by Maine and West Virginia. Alaska had the lowest share of older residents, at 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, at 49.3 percent.

—The 85-and-older population increased by 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.

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