WASHINGTON - A record number of U.S. counties - more than one in three - are now dying off, hit by an aging population and weakened local economies that are spurring young adults to seek jobs and build families elsewhere.
All but a handful of counties are dying off in West Virginia, the state that leads the nation in deaths outpacing births.
In West Virginia, all but nine counties experienced this natural decrease.
Kanawha County had the largest decrease between 2011 and 2012, with the county's 2,455 deaths outpacing its 2,187 births by 268 during the one-year period.
Hancock, Brooke, Wayne and Ohio follow Kanawha to make up the top five West Virginia counties with the greatest natural decrease between 2011 and 2012.
Calhoun, Clay, Boone, Pendleton, Putnam, Cabell, Jefferson, Monongalia and Berkeley counties all saw natural increases over the period, with Berkeley County seeing the largest gain. Births outpaced deaths by 421 over the one-year period.
In the last year, Maine joined West Virginia as the only two entire states where deaths exceed births, which have dropped precipitously after the recent recession.
West Virginia's deaths exceeded births by 1,606 over the last year, with the state reporting 21,832 deaths compared to 20,226 births. Maine's deaths outpaced births by 103, with the state recording 12,754 births compared to 12,857 deaths.
New 2012 census estimates released Thursday highlight the population shifts as the United States encounters its most sluggish growth levels since the Great Depression.
The findings also reflect the increasing economic importance of foreign-born residents as the country ponders an overhaul of a major 1965 federal immigration law. Without new immigrants, many metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and St. Louis would have posted flat or negative population growth in the last year.
"Immigrants are innovators, entrepreneurs, they're making things happen. They create jobs," said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, at an immigration conference in his state last week. Saying Michigan should be a top destination for legal immigrants to come and boost Detroit and other struggling areas, Snyder made a special appeal: "Please come here."
The growing attention on immigrants is coming mostly from areas of the Midwest and Northeast, which are seeing many of their residents leave after years of staying put during the downturn. With a slowly improving U.S. economy, young adults are now back on the move, departing traditional big cities to test the job market mostly in the South and West, which had sustained the biggest hits in the housing bust.
Also seeing big declines now are rural and exurban areas, along with industrial sections of the Rust Belt.
Census data show that 1,135 of the nation's 3,143 counties are now experiencing "natural decrease," where deaths exceed births. That's up from roughly 880 U.S. counties, or one in four, in 2009. Already apparent in Japan and many European nations, natural decrease is now increasingly evident in large swaths of the United States.
Despite increasing deaths, the U.S. population as a whole continues to grow, boosted by immigration from abroad and relatively higher births among the mostly younger migrants from Mexico, Latin America and Asia.
"These counties are in a pretty steep downward spiral," said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer and sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire, who researched the findings. "The young people leave and the older adults stay in place and age. Unless something dramatic changes - for instance, new development such as a meatpacking plant to attract young Hispanics - these areas are likely to have more and more natural decrease."
The areas of natural decrease stretch from industrial areas near Pittsburgh and Cleveland to the vineyards outside San Francisco to the rural areas of east Texas and the Great Plains. A common theme is a waning local economy, such as farming, mining or industrial areas. They also include some retirement communities in Florida, although many are cushioned by a steady flow of new retirees each year.
As a nation, the U.S. population grew by just 0.75 percent last year, stuck at historically low levels not seen since 1937.