The Wall Street Journal: Population leaves heartland behind

April 12, 2011 | General RCAP News

Census Shows Growth Fueled by Increasingly Diverse Metro Areas; in Kansas, a Small Town Tears Down Empty Homes

Online posting of this article
Originally printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A6, on April 11, 2011


Americans continued to abandon the nation’s heartland over the past decade, moving into metropolitan areas that have grown less white and less segregated, the 2010 Census showed.

The U.S. population grew by 27 million over the decade, to 308 million. But growth was unevenly distributed. Metropolitan areas, defined as the collection of small cities and suburbs that surround an urban core with at least 50,000 people, accounted for most of the gain, growing 10.8% over the decade to 257.7 million people.

Rural areas, meanwhile, grew just 4.5% to 51 million. Many regions—from the Great Plains to the Mississippi Delta to rural New England—saw population declines. About 46% of rural counties lost population in the decade, including almost 60% of rural counties that aren’t adjacent to a metro area, according to an analysis of Census data by Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

Such findings come as no surprise to Robert Knudson, city manager of Belleville, Kan. Over the decade, the county surrounding Belleville lost 855 people—15% of its population—and has been tearing down empty homes in recent years. Mr. Knudson is typical of many residents in his home town: His two adult children live in Wichita, a two-and-a-half hour drive away.

"We were producing children for the jobs we couldn’t support," Mr. Knudson said.

According to the Census, Southern and Western states saw the most growth, continuing a decades-long trend. Texas added 4.3 million people, more than any other state. As a result, it will gain four seats in Congress.

Throughout America, and especially in cities, the nation’s racial mix changed considerably. With Hispanics and Asians accounting for much of the population growth, the U.S. became more diverse. The number of white children declined, due in part to age: The white population is older on average, so more whites are dying, and fewer are in their prime child-bearing years.

Hispanics, which have become the nation’s demographic driving force, accounted for 56% of U.S. population growth. Without Hispanics, the total number of children would have fallen.

William Frey, a demographer at the left-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington, estimates that the U.S. will flip to "majority minority" in 2041, meaning whites of European ancestry will make up less than 50% of the population. Ten states are already there; in six of them—Nevada, Arizona, Maryland, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi—whites became a minority in the last decade.

As America becomes more diverse, it is becoming less segregated. The suburbs have become a leading destination for minorities and new immigrants, while a number of cities including Washington, Seattle and Denver showed upticks in the number of white residents.

An index of racial segregation prepared by Mr. Frey shows that over the decade, segregation among whites and every other group fell across all neighborhoods in the U.S.

Atlanta is one city where racial lines have begun to blur. In 2009, Kasim Reed, the city’s African-American mayor, narrowly defeated a white woman—Atlanta’s first competitive white candidate in decades. In an interview, he ticked off members of his staff and administration as examples of the city’s changing face. His chief operating officer is a white male. His communications director is a black female. The public works commissioner is a Hispanic male.

"When you look position by position you’re starting to see true diversity and I think 10 or 15 years ago you would have seen a staff that was all African-American or all African-American and white and that would have been the end of the story," he said.