Region’s 2020 Census results not sad omen for all rural areas, experts say

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A map showing Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and indicating that each of them lost a congressional seat, Ohio and Pennsylvania gained population and West Virginia lost population.
Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are three states that are losing a congressional seat, due to Census results. (Farm and Dairy image)

Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are losing some influence in Congress, thanks to initial results from the 2020 Census, released April 26. But based on what policy experts are seeing, the shift isn’t rooted in changes to rural areas of those states.

“It’s not strictly an urban-rural phenomena,” said Sean O’Leary, senior policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

The changes aren’t necessarily bad news for rural areas, either. West Virginia is one of only three states that lost population. Ohio and Pennsylvania both gained population — just at a slower rate than other states. Despite slower growth, rural Ohio is doing pretty well, experts say.

“Based on what we know today … it’s not the dreary story that the national media portrays for rural America,” said Mark Partridge, Swank Chair in Rural-Urban Policy at Ohio State University. “We can find those places in Ohio, but it’s not the typical story.”

More data in the coming weeks and months will offer details about populations within states, and allow states to draw new Congressional district maps.

Population loss

The three states are among the seven states losing a congressional seat, leaving Pennsylvania with 17, Ohio with 15 and West Virginia with two seats.

West Virginia’s population loss has been pretty much across the board, O’Leary said. A few urban areas did have population gains, but the rest of the state lost population. The state has a similar rate of people moving in and out of the state as other states. But it’s birth rate is lower and death rate is higher than most other states.

“We stand out on both ends,” O’Leary said. “We have a negative natural population rate.”

It’s hard to know exactly why that is, but one factor might be that West Virginia has an older population on the whole, he said.

Rural population

Rural Ohio is also doing pretty well compared to the rest of the state, based on yearly population estimates.

“It trails urban Ohio, but nationally, rural America trails urban America by a lot more,” Partridge said. “All in all, rural Ohio isn’t doing all that bad.”

In the 20th century, Ohio was near the national average in population growth until 1966. Since then, it has lagged behind the rest of the country in population and employment, following less demand and more foreign competition for manufacturing, a major industry in the state.

Pennsylvania, along with Michigan and a few other states, has had a similar story. Partridge doesn’t see anything to suggest that will change within the next decade or so.

But Ohio has had some relatively fast growing “micropolitan” areas — cities with populations of 10,000-50,000 — as well as rural areas, like Holmes County, that aren’t booming but are doing far better than expected, based on their size and proximity to interstates.

There are a couple of reasons for this, Partridge said. Ohio has a lot of cities spread out across the state, so many rural citizens are within commuting distance to a city. That helps keep populations high enough to avoid losing things like school districts and grocery stores, which makes it less likely that more people will leave.

Rural counties in the state also tend to be run pragmatically, and have more authority and responsibility than county governments in many states, Partridge said.

Impact

Partridge thinks it’s unlikely rural Ohio will lose much political power when the redistricting process starts.

“I would say imperceptible,” he said.

Both Ohio and Pennsylvania have lost significant numbers of congressional seats over the past several decades, with Pennsylvania dropping from 36 seats in 1920 to 17 this year, and Ohio from 24 in the 1960s to 15 now.

But this still leaves Pennsylvania in the top five states for electoral college votes, according to a brief from the Pennsylvania Population Network, part of the Population Research Institute at Penn State University. And far as overall political pull, a one seat difference isn’t likely to be a major change, Partridge said.

Ohio could, however, begin to lose its status as a swing state, if it continues to trend more Republican.

“If it looks like Republicans win Ohio regardless, then it’s not a swing state anymore,” he said.

Since Ohio currently trends Republican, the state’s power will more likely depend on what political party is leading at the national level, Partridge explained.

If Republicans are leading in Washington, Republican Ohio representatives are more likely to lead on key committees. If Ohio continues to elect fewer Democratic representatives, it is less likely to have representatives in those positions when Democrats lead in Washington.

Economy

In addition to losing some influence on national policy, West Virginia could see a little bit less funding for things like education and infrastructure, since a lot of federal funding is based on census data on population, O’Leary said.

Losing population makes it harder to grow the economy. The state doesn’t add jobs or increase wages, and industries and companies are less likely to come into the state. Public schools and colleges have fewer students, and the state ends up with fewer college graduates.

“One of the easiest ways to grow the economy is to have more people,” O’Leary said.

Policies that improve health, education levels and overall wellbeing could help reverse that trend, he said. If further data shows that people are having less children in the state because of challenges with raising children and working, creating policies on sick days, paid leave and flexible work could also help.

More details

More detailed census data is expected in the coming weeks and months, and will allow states to begin the redistricting process.

That data, O’Leary said, might also reveal more about why the state has such low birth rates and high death rates — for example, if many of the people moving into the state are older, and many of the people leaving are younger, that could explain the population decline.

“We’ll be able to get demographic information,” he said. “Who are the people who are moving to West Virginia? Who are the people who are leaving? … Right now, we don’t have the details.”

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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