The 2020 U.S. census was the first in which fewer people were counted in rural counties than in the previous census. "Over half of the country’s counties, home to a quarter of Americans, lost population," The Economist notes. "Over the coming decades still more will, because America’s population is growing more slowly. The change will be wrenching, because of America’s demographic and administrative peculiarities." And that has special significance for rural areas.

Many other wealthy countries "are growing even more slowly or shrinking," The Economist notes. "America’s demographic problems are much smaller than those of its peers. Yet there are reasons to worry that America will adapt to slow growth even less readily than other countries. America’s population is growing at about the same rate as those of Britain and France. But America is different from Britain or France in that its population is much more prone to move around the country."

When many people leave a place, the magazine says, "It can set in motion reinforcing cycles that accelerate the decline. For example, when there is far more housing available than people to fill it, the result tends to be a collapse in the value of homes. If it is severe enough, landlords and even homeowners stop maintaining their properties, because the cost of repairs is higher than the return they will generate. As the resulting blight spreads and neighbourhoods begin to feel hollowed out, the incentive to stay is reduced even further. This is what is called a death spiral.

"Death spirals tend to be worse in America because of the remarkable level to which the government is decentralised. Just 8% of spending on primary and secondary education comes from the federal government, for example, and less than a quarter of the spending on law enforcement. Local and regional authorities levy 48% of all tax collected in America, compared with just 20% in France and 6% in Britain. And even America’s federal spending typically comes in the form of grants linked to population levels. So when local tax revenues shrink, services must be cut or taxes must rise."

The Economist asks and answers: "Does it matter if places die? Some would argue no. People are better off if they can move to opportunity, instead of becoming trapped in dying cities or jobless rural areas. Indeed, competition between cities helps explain America’s economic dynamism . . . Shrinking is hugely politically unpopular because, inevitably, many people are left behind, and the lives of those unwilling or unable to move worsen as their neighbors depart. Federal, state and local officials know this. And so they will do almost anything to avoid shrinking. All manner of big government facilities, from air-force bases to prisons, can be located in rural areas, ensuring there are jobs that in turn sustain the rest of the economy."

Read the full article about rural places are shrinking by Al Cross at The Rural Blog.