People Flee Rural America, Government Stays

County governments are among the oldest in the U.S., predating rail and automobiles. Many county boundaries were drawn small enough that a man on horseback could travel roundtrip to a courthouse in a day's ride. Since 1980, the population has declined in large swaths of rural counties across the U.S. Yet the number of local governments in those counties has increased in most states during that time.

Published Oct. 31, 2013

Lack of Jobs Drains Great Plains

More than 1,000 counties in the U.S. have fewer residents today than in 1980, mostly because job-seeking adults left rural areas for cities. While the largest population drop was McDowell County, in West Virginia's mining country, large swaths of counties in the Great Plains states have experienced steep population decline. Yet attempts to consolidate local government there have failed. A Nebraska proposal in 2010 to go from 93 counties to 63 didn't make it out of legislative committee. The population has declined in 74 counties in the state since 1980.

Percentage change in county population, 1980 to 2012

Under Brownback, Government Cuts Skip Counties

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback declared that "where other governments expand, we grow smaller." Since 1980, though, local government has grown in Kansas while many have left rural counties in western and central parts of the state. In Jewell County, where 3,046 people live — averaging three per square mile — there are 25 townships and seven municipalities. There are 83 separate taxes levied in the county.

In Arkansas, No Consolidation in the Delta

Monroe County has lost 44 percent of its population since 1980, though its main budget grew 9 percent, adjusted for inflation, during that period. Neighboring Phillips County has lost 40 percent of its population. No other adjacent counties in the U.S. with at least 5,000 people had as large a population decline. The idea of consolidating jails or other functions has gone nowhere.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau