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U.S. Census: Population falling off in 4 East Texas counties

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FROM THE TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH:

U.S. Census: Population falling off in 4 East Texas counties
By KELLY GOOCH
kgooch@tylerpaper.com

New census numbers show at least four East Texas counties are "dying," meaning the number of deaths exceed births.

But some officials said that is only one component of population change, and their entities are in fact stable or still growing.

According to the census data, 1,135 of the nation's 3,143 counties are experiencing more deaths than births -- an increase from about 880 U.S. counties, or 1 in 4, in 2009.

That means more than 1 in 3 counties are "dying off," hit by aging residents and weakening local economies that prompt young adults to look for jobs and build families in other areas.

In East Texas, Anderson, Henderson, Van Zandt and Wood counties are among those counties with more deaths than births from July 1, 2011, to July 1, 2012, census numbers show.

Anderson County had 62 more deaths than births during that time; Henderson County had 92; Van Zandt County had 32; and Wood County had 175.

Counties with more births than deaths included Cherokee County with 258; Gregg County with 617; Rusk County with 143; and Smith County with 1,174.

State demographer Lloyd Potter said one reason for the phenomenon is migration, where people in rural counties are moving into urbanized areas, and those in the urbanized areas are moving into more urban areas.

Essentially, he said, the migration is driven by people in the labor force who are looking for employment opportunities.

"Facts are that labor force ages coincide with reproductive ages, (and) people in the labor force ages are moving into more urbanized places, so then what happens is age structure in rural areas becomes what is old," Potter said.

"You don't have young people in the population who are aging into the labor force."

He said that means the population growth ultimately either becomes stagnant or decreases.

Once that occurs, an area can lose a sense of community, and that's been at the foundation of many rural parts of the state, he said.

"As there are fewer and fewer families with kids and more and more aging people, there's less sense of community, and I have talked to people who think it is happening to their community," Potter said, adding that this isn't occurring "uniformly (in the state) but in pockets."

Henderson County Judge Richard Sanders said a lot of people are moving to retire in the county, and there are residents who go to a Tyler hospital to give birth, both of which could contribute to the county's numbers.

But based on the census, he said Henderson County grew about 7 percent from 2000 to 2010 and continues to grow at a slower rate.

"We continue to work with developers that come to the county. We work with people who are putting subdivisions in to try to promote growth. We try to keep taxes at a low rate to encourage people to move here. It's important to me to make it advantageous for people to come here," he said.

It's also important to the commissioners, who work well with people who come into the county and try to help, Sanders said.

In fact, he encouraged business community members to come to Henderson County, citing the county's "great lifestyle" and offerings.

Sanders noted that three restaurants have opened in Athens in the last 30 days, and the Chandler area has continued to grow.

"You see more construction I believe coming out of this economy that we've been experiencing for awhile. I believe it looks -- from conversations I've had with different people -- that we are starting to do more as far as construction," Sanders said.

Chana Gail Willis, executive director of the Wood County Industrial Commission, called the natural increase figure -- deaths versus births -- "a simple way to view if a county is growing or dying."

She said the death-to-birth ratio solely reflects the actual recorded number of deaths in an area versus the reported number of births.  However, she said the natural increase rates do not entail migration.

"In demographics techniques, birth and death rates, along with projected migration figures, are used to calculate true population changes after each census," she wrote. 

"There may (be) other factor(s), too, that may skew reported ... births to deaths population changes. The community must also look (at) the population size of its retirement-aged citizenry compared to the child-bearing age demographics."

In Wood County, 24.9 percent of people are retired, she said. Commissioner Roger Pace attributed that to people living longer and the fact that they enjoy the forest and wooded surroundings.

Ms. Willis said child-bearing families also might leave the county to have their children at larger hospitals.

Although there were more deaths than births in Wood County, Ms. Willis said that according to census.gov, the county population in 2010 was 41,964, and grew to 42,022 in 2012.

She said the state's 2013 population projection for Wood County is at 47,297 -- a 12.71 percent projected growth.

As far as school districts, Mineola ISD Superintendent Dr. H. John Fuller said based on his research, all the districts in his area, especially Mineola, had a stable to slightly declining enrollment. He said enrollment in Mineola ISD hasn't changed within 15 students in 20 years.

"What happens in my perspective is Mineola is a retirement area, so we have a lot of people retiring here, and they die here, but the births (number) has probably been very consistent or at least there's enough new people moving in to keep the school district's enrollment constant," he said.

But he acknowledged that there are dying districts in Texas. He said that is particularly the case in West Texas, and he knows of some districts in East Texas with fewer than 200 children.

In Wood County, he said all the districts are pretty stable, with the smallest one offering courses through the Internet. He said multiple districts -- Hawkins, Yantis, Quitman, Alba-Golden and Mineola ISDs -- have a special co-op agreement for some needs for special education students.

He said he believes such co-ops will become more of a trend than pure consolidation. For now, Fuller said Mineola ISD is not planning for a lot of growth and is fortunate that it's been stable.

"For Mineola, we pride ourselves in being a small community, a retirement community, a school district that's stable that meets the needs of the students. (It's) almost the perfect setting for a couple to come and want to raise their children here," he said.

"Our arms are open to anyone who wants to move here because economic growth is built around the population, but we need more jobs or the accessibility to more jobs," he said. "We will welcome growth, but it will only happen in Mineola, in my opinion, when more jobs are located in Mineola or we get thoroughfares that will get people to the job areas more quickly than they can today."

Smith County Judge Joel Baker said the county is privileged to be "one of the faster-growing counties in this region."

"We are growing into an urban community as our population swells and our economy steadily strengthens," he said. "We continuously work with local municipalities and the Tyler Economic Development Council to create a welcoming environment for new business growth in Smith County, which directly results in the creation of more jobs, bringing in more families and continuing the trend of natural growth."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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