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April 21
Keeping up with 2013 County Population Trends

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Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau released the 2013 county population estimates, allowing a closer look at population changes on a local level.  NACo’s previous analysis of 2013 state and regional trends revealed that U.S. population continued to grow between 2012 and 2013 overall, but at a slightly slower rate than in the previous year. Population expansion at the county level shows wider variation within state or regional trends, often driven by the local economic climate.   

The population slowdown happened in almost half of all the counties across the country.  More than half of counties in 14 states – including Alaska, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania – experienced slower population growth in 2013 than in the previous year.  Alaska had the largest share of boroughs undergoing a population slowdown, with 16 out of the total 19 witnessing a deceleration.

But counties saw population expansion in 2013 and at the lower end of growth rates, stabilization.

Consistent with regional findings, many of the fastest growing counties were counties in the South and Midwest.  Most often, these are small counties (with less than 50,000 residents) with expanding oil industries; of the 30 fastest growing counties in 2013, nine of them are located in North Dakota and 11 are in Texas.  For example, McKenzie County, ND’s population skyrocketed by 17 percent.  The county – located on the Bakken Formation – produced 8.4 million barrels of oil in January 2014 alone, making it the highest oil producing county in North Dakota.  

Population trends in counties with declining populations showed signs towards stabilization.   Almost 70 percent of counties who saw their population shrink between 2011 and 2012 had lesser declines, and in some cases population growth in 2013.  Looking at the bottom 50 cases, population contracted by 4 percent on average in 2012.  In contrast, the following year, the population in these 50 counties stopped declining, remaining virtually the same as in 2012.   For the most part, these 50 counties are small counties scattered throughout the West, Midwest and parts of the South.

These local population trends show what counties are in the midst of rapid population changes.  While population growth comes often on the heels of economic expansion, counties often cannot keep up with the needs of their communities and infrastructure due to the current structure of the county funding.  Counties are creatures of the state, so often funds for essential services such as maintenance of roads and bridges depend on state support. As county population patterns keep changing, counties have to adapt to deliver services to their residents. 

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