Back in July, when no one was looking, a US Census study charting population changes using census numbers for 2000 and 2010 then extrapolating out through the year 2050 was released. Not surprisingly, the greatest loss of population is in far Eastern Kentucky. The surprise is that the four counties of the Mississippi and a band of counties around the northwestern edge of the state are among the losers.
Eastern Kentucky is well aware of the potential of population loss. In part, the birth of SOAR (Save Our Appalachian Region) is a result of two government leaders, Governor Steve Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers, putting aside partisan differences to start SOAR. Whether SOAR will be the answer to the mountain region's problems remains to be seen. The good news is that shining a light on the problems of Appalachia begins an effort to hold back the tide.
The effort includes a national component. The Obama Administration's grant to Berea College to work with children in Knox County is a recognition that "high rates of poverty have persisted for generations..." Knox is one of the over 300 rural counties that have had poverty rates of over 20 percent in every Census since 1980.
We looked at the statistics only as far out as 2030. Going out twenty more years felt too speculative. Looking at the numbers from the 2010 census then out twenty years was a more manageable bite. Some of the population changes are so small that they are not inevitable. We find it hard to believe that predictions of Jackson County growing by 44 people over twenty years then drop by 1529 in the year 2050 is a foregone conclusion.
On that optimistic note, what is on that map is scary for those who want to see rural areas thrive.
Rural counties, with few exceptions, are shrinking. There are multiple reasons - the nature of agriculture is drastically changing. Farm equipment is replacing farm laborers. Small factories, once the life blood of small towns in rural areas, have either gone out of America (think garment factories) or they have moved to metro areas where access to high speed internet and transportation are assured. As populations shrink, job opportunities shrink. It is historical given that workers follow the jobs.
The biggest employers in rural counties are schools and government. Neither of these is a wealth creator. Both are dependent on population. Simply put, fewer children equal smaller schools and smaller staffs. Smaller populations need fewer government workers.
Looking at the map, some trends are obvious. Rural counties on the verges of population centers are going to do well - Washington, Marion, Larue, Barren Counties, for example. The metro areas of the Golden Triangle, Lexington to Louisville to Covington, will continue to be the growth engines of the Commonwealth. Counties on the fringes, Trigg, Spencer, Bullitt among others, benefit from that growth, as the metro areas swell with new residents.
Access to growth in surrounding states helps. See the Ohio River counties from Mason to Henderson. Natural attractions help - the Kentucky Lakes region and Lake Cumberland area benefit from being near bodies of water that attract tourists and new residents. To a lesser extent, colleges and universities help. Calloway benefits from Murray State's location. Rowan is helped by Morehead's presence.
Watching the tiny (in population) counties in the River Counties shrink is painful. As of the 2010 census, the four counties on the banks of the Mississippi River had a total population of 25,068. My home county, Knox, so distressed the White House is stepping in, had a population of 31,883. By 2030, the population of Knox County will drop by 261. If the predictions are accurate, the River Counties will have 2,587 fewer residents in 2030.
One geographer and planner, whom I have the pleasure of living with, believes there is a tipping point when stopping the population slide becomes impossible. It is obvious that those supporting SOAR believe that the tipping point has not been reached in Eastern Kentucky. Educational support, broadband access, small business assistance, and tax incentives are some of the tools being used to help that big blue swath of Kentucky.
At this writing, no such efforts are being mounted in the western counties.
Complacency is the order of the day. As the population ages, the urgency to do something about the losses is replaced by shrugs and sighs and dreams of yesterday. Young people are voting with their feet and heading for the bright lights of Lexington, Nashville and St. Louis.
As the tiny population in rural western Kentucky gets tinier, one has to wonder if the population tipping point has been reached.