Reporting from Los Angeles and Atlanta — The majority of the nation's sparsely populated rural counties lost even more residents in the last decade, though some of the counties — particularly those in the Mountain West — saw population gains that may be the result of retirees striking out for areas that are both scenic and affordable, according to a Times analysis of figures released by the Census Bureau on Tuesday.
The data offer the first detailed portrait of heartland America in a decade, covering the roughly 1,400 counties of fewer than 20,000 people. The numbers also show a growing Latino presence in these counties.
Such data had been hard to come by previously. Concentrated from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountain region, the counties constitute half of the United States by area, but were too sparsely populated to provide meaningful statistics as the Census Bureau rolled out a new yearly national survey in the mid-2000s.
To account for the low numbers, the data released Tuesday — including population, income and social characteristics — have been averaged over five years.
That makes some of the data difficult to interpret, particularly income figures, because the five-year period spans the pre-recession boom, the recession and the beginning of the recovery.
But the Times analysis of the numbers shows unequivocally that a thick swath of the country, from north Texas to the Dakotas, has lost population.
Ken Johnson, senior demographer for the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, has noted that this shift was the case for much of the 20th century, although the country saw rural population growth in the 1970s, as city-dwellers left struggling cities, and another rebound in the early 1990s.
But growth in rural America is the exception. A different story is unfolding in places like Lane County, Kan., a wheat- and corn-growing area in the central-west portion of the state that lost 23% of its population — the 11th greatest population loss in the nation among rural counties.
"We're just a small community and there are no jobs, and they're just moving to find other jobs," said April Berry, 35, a cook at the Frigid Creme diner in downtown Dighton, the county seat, in a phone interview Tuesday night.
Berry said the loss was palpable in the sleepy downtown, where in the last few years, a jeweler and florist closed up shop. Now, she said, locals have to drive 55 miles to Garden City just to get to flowers or jewels, or even find a Wal-Mart.
The rural area with the largest population growth, of 42%, was Spencer County, Ky., 45 minutes from downtown Louisville and encompassing a popular 3,000-acre recreational lake.
That growth is in keeping with a 2006 study in which Johnson noted that rural areas with "natural amenities, recreational opportunities or quality of life advantages" are best suited to grow.
The second-largest population growth was in Teton County, Idaho, in the shadow of the Grand Tetons and just west of Jackson Hole, Wyo., the once-pokey town that in recent years has become a preferred destination for the jet set.
Johnson, in an interview Tuesday, said such places are attractive to retirees, but also to urban types looking for a second home.
"But what that means is that some of the people who were already living there might not have to leave," he said, because the part-timers bring increased commerce.
Johnson had only begun to study the voluminous data released as part of the Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
But what he had seen thus far, he said, reinforced how much minorities, particularly Latinos, have contributed to population growth in both urban and rural areas.
Between 2000 and 2008, he noted, 51.2% of the entire population increase in the United States has come from Latinos, who represented 15.3% of the population in 2008.
Most of that growth was not from immigration, but from what demographers call "natural increase": between 2000 and 2008, there were 8.2 million Latino births in the U.S. and only 900,000 Latino deaths.
The Times analysis shows significant gains in Latino populations not only in the Southwest, but also in rural counties from Mississippi to the northernmost reaches of Montana.
The Census Bureau projects the current total population of the United States to be almost 311 million, with a net gain of one person every 13 seconds.
Data show that many counties in the Great Plains are also experiencing a loss of young people. Johnson said that trend was probably creating a "downward spiral" of population loss in these areas since the young weren't sticking around to bear children.
"The only thing that might break them out of it," he said, "is an influx of young Hispanics."