|Step outside your house or apartment and look around. Do you see more people moving out than unpacking or more folks being buried than born? If so, you're living in one of America's many counties that are dying off.
New estimates from the 2012 census released Thursday and reported by The Associated Press found the American population is shifting as local economies weaken and their populations age. The numbers show show that 1,135 of the nation's 3,143 counties are going through "natural decrease," where deaths exceed births. That's up from roughly 880 U.S. counties, or 1 in 4, in 2009.
So, how can you tell if you're in one of these dying counties? Well, if your home is in a far-flung suburb 45 minutes to an hour from a major city, there's a strong chance your town has watched a 2.1% boom in 2006 turn into a 0.35% decline last year.
Or if you measure your land in plantable acres, calculate your commute in how long it takes you to pick up hay, and count the days by keeping track of your monthly recycling pickup. You may be among the 46% of rural counties that experienced a natural decrease. By comparison, only 17% of urban counties went through the same.
Population decline has been also been happening in Japan and several European nations for some time now, and it would be a whole lot worse in places like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and St. Louis if it weren't for the influx of young immigrants from Mexico, Latin America and Asia. While many of America's shriveling counties are in the Midwest and Northeast, rural and exurban areas outside major cities and even cities in the South and West hit hard by the housing bust are seeing declines.
All of these areas have counties that are among the poorest in America, with some in South Dakota flirting with a 50% poverty rate. In the last year, Maine joined West Virginia as the only two entire states where deaths exceed births. But across the country, the birthrate has tanked since the recession. The U.S. population grew by just 0.75% last year, marking a low since 1937.
Regionally, growth in the Northeast slowed last year to 0.3%, the lowest since 2007. In the Midwest, growth dipped to 0.25%, the lowest in at least a decade. The story was only slightly better in the South and West, where growth rates rose 1.1% and 1.04%, respectively.
On the flip side, more than 70 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are steadily increasing the mortality rate. On the whole, the populations of non-metropolitan areas last year declined by 0.1%, compared to 1% growth in large metro areas and 0.7% growth smaller metros.
Of course, if you enjoy solitude, a county that's emptying out is just fine.