Population loss is troubling, but it isn’t irreversible

One consolation that Mahoning County can take from recent census data is that the county is not alone in a population decline that is hemorrhagic in scope.

More than 1 in 3 U.S. counties are staggering into the 21st century with aging populations and an exodus of young adults who are leaving to find jobs and to build their families.

As reported last Saturday, the U.S. is encountering its most sluggish growth levels since the Great Depression.

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 in 2009 and just by the numbers that holds troubling implications for the future.

Even worse, in millions of cases nationwide and thousands of cases here in the Mahoning Valley, there is an exodus — a brain drain — as students who were educated in local high schools and Ohio public and private colleges and universities pack up and leave.

Three succeeding Ohio administrations have attempted with varying degrees of resoluteness to reverse this trend, but numbers don’t indicate success.

Again, though, there is consolation based on misery-loves-company, because Youngstown is not alone. New York, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and St. Louis all saw a decrease in native population in the last year, although an influx of immigrants kept the bottom line stable. That list of cities is a mixed bag between stagnant and troubled and vibrant and optimistic, but they share the pain that comes with the loss of native sons and daughters. That pain is communitywide, but it is felt even more acutely from family to family.

Where the growth is

Meanwhile, there are still areas of growth, primarily in the South and West.

Tomorrow in this space, we will discuss some of the more encouraging economic trends already present in the Mahoning Valley regarding economic diversification and job prospects.

But today we’re going to suggest that there are reasons to be at least somewhat encouraged about Ohio’s long-term prospects.

For one thing, the state can be more proactive in attempting to retain Ohio’s college graduates and in luring back those who were convinced — not necessarily correctly — that the grass was greener in another state.

And the greenness of the grass brings us to another thing. Ohio not only has four marvelous seasons, it has the primary resource that allows the grass to turn green in the spring and stay that way right up until the snow falls. Water.

Among the still-growing metropolitan areas in the census data were Phoenix and Las Vegas, two cities that are already facing the challenges of hydrating a growing human population under a sweltering southwestern sun. Reservoirs are dropping, subdivisions are on the verge of new water wars and conservation of limited water resources go only so far in making the desert bloom.

We have long argued for the strongest possible protection of one of the nation’s greatest resources, the Great Lakes. Water once provided the transportation of raw materials, power, cooling and by-product disposal that were the key to the industrial economy of Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and more cities than we have space to list. Those cities did not treat their natural resources kindly, but time is allowing us to rehabilitate our waterways. And the day will come when water will take on a renewed economic significance.

Today’s census numbers are troubling for areas such as ours, but they are not etched in stone.

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