Data from the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia predicts in the 30-year period from 2010 to 2040, a fourth of the population of Martinsville and Henry County will be gone while the State of Virginia’s population will increase by a fourth. Henry County Deputy Administrator Dale Wagoner told the Martinsville Bulletin “Every rural community in America is experiencing population retraction.” That’s not true. 746 counties representing 24 percent of all U.S. counties are depopulating and 91 percent of these are rural. In all, about 35 percent of rural counties in the United States are experiencing protracted and significant population loss, according to the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. Regardless, the point Wagoner was making is true, while Martinsville and Henry County are in the midst of depopulating, it’s a national trend that is happening all over America.

City Manager Leon Towarnicki was quoted in the Martinsville Bulletin as saying “young professionals are attracted to high-density population/metro areas with all the associated amenities, job availability, housing options, arts and cultural opportunities, etc.” According to new research released by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, the City Manager is correct; 43 percent of 20-to-24-year-olds have been leaving rural counties since 1950. The report says “chronic young adult outmigration means there were far fewer women of child-bearing age, and as a result, many fewer births. This combination of young adult outmigration, fewer births and more death produced a downward spiral of population loss that will be difficult to break.”

Area leaders suggest maybe the numbers won’t be as bad as predicted, and Towarnicki points out “much can happen to directly impact those projections.” In fact, the Carsey report shows more than 35 percent of rural counties have experienced sustained growth for decades. They fall into three categories: 1) counties that are near metropolitan areas, 2) counties that are centers for retirement, 3) counties that are centers for recreation. Notice centers for manufacturing are not one of the categories. “This study provides a demographic window to the future and a sober forecast of continuing rural population decline in many economically depressed regions,” the researchers said. “Future rural population growth and decline clearly are deeply rooted in evolving patterns of migration, fertility and mortality. It is past time to refocus our attention on the rural people and places left behind.”

The 1880 census showed the population of Martinsville was 289 and Henry County was 16,009. Martinsville peaked in 1970 at 19,653. Henry County peaked in 2000 with 57,944. The latest figures are from 2014 and show Martinsville with 13,711 and Henry County with 54,094. Martinsville has lost 30 percent of its population since 1970, while Henry County has lost less than 7 percent from its highest point. Combined, Martinsville and Henry County peaked in 1980 and have lost a little more than 10 percent of their combined population since that time.

We’re not down on ourselves as much as the researchers might lead others to believe either. According to a poll released in May of this year from National Public Radio, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health, we know there are fewer jobs, lower wages, more illness, and higher poverty, but 92 percent of us say we are satisfied with our quality of life, and 62 percent of us hold a sense of optimism about our ability to make things better.

Dee Davis, President of the Center for Rural Strategies notes Shakespeare’s stories shared a commonality of every individual from King Lear to Macbeth – “no matter the beauty, heroism, or the insight, every individual will weaken, fail, and perish, yet society perseveres no matter the hardships. Communities hang on even when the mines close and the plant shuts down. They endure in the gray areas.”

Studies and projections have little use for gray areas.

Sources and Credits:

University of New Hampshire. “Shrinking population in more than a third of rural U.S. counties.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 February 2019.

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Analysis: Poll Finds Rural Optimism Despite Economic Challenges