Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Parts of rural Pennsylvania paint a grim picture of dwindling populations and the loss of small-town life

When rural populations shrink, the quality of
small-town life declines. (Adobe Stock photo)
Some rural populations have continued to shrink, leaving towns that were once vibrant places facing an uncertain future. "Across rural Pennsylvania, there is a deepening sense of fear about the future as population loss accelerates. The sharp decline has put the state at the forefront of a national discussion on the viability of the small towns that have long been a pillar of American culture," reports Tim Craig of The Washington Post. Many losses stem from a rural aging population not being replaced by births and younger families moving away in search of better opportunities.

Around 10 years ago, the U.S. rural population flattened and then began to contract. In fact, 81% of rural counties "had more deaths than births between 2019 and 2023," Craig writes. "Experts who study the phenomena say the shrinking baby boomer population and younger residents having smaller families and moving elsewhere for jobs are fueling the trend."

In the 1980s, parts of rural Pennsylvania began losing people because of "job losses in the manufacturing and energy industries that prompted many younger families to relocate to Sun Belt states," Craig reports. "State lawmakers and other leaders now consider the population loss a crisis and are drawing up plans to try to reverse the trend."

When a small town has more people die than are born, and fewer people move in to fill the gaps, daily life changes for the entire community. "Already, the demographic shift is affecting where students attend school, how long residents have to wait for an ambulance and whether they can quickly see a doctor," Craig explains. "In some cases, local governments themselves are on the verge of collapse as they struggle to fill open jobs and leadership positions."

Sheffield, Pennsylvania, is one community facing the reality of "too many old people." The area began to decline about "a decade ago. . . . But it’s been only in the last decade or so that the full weight of the community’s future challenges began," Craig reports. "Sheffield’s only ambulance was taken out of service about two years ago, around the same time the community’s only daycare closed due to low enrollment. . . Residents are peeved that the local bank branch and liquor store have closed."

The community may have to close its high school because there aren't enough students. Jim Decker, chairman of the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry, wants "local leaders to figure out a way to reinvent the community," Craig adds. "But Decker acknowledged the planning for Warren County’s recovery is 'a daunting task.'"

Kenneth M. Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, said, "Barring some outside occurrence, it’s very unusual for counties to recover."

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