Slow Death in the Great Plains

A sizable swath of the country's heartland is undergoing a severe drop in births that, if it continues, could empty many small towns in just one generation.

OVER the past two decades a strange phenomenon has become clear in much of the center of the United States: people have almost stopped having children. Several factors may explain this. Much of the Baby Boom generation has finished having children, and its successors, known unimaginatively as Generation X, have delayed having children and chosen to have much smaller families. These facts, which apply to the country as a whole, acquire ominous dimensions when considered alongside the "rural flight" away from the Midwest which began in the 1930s and continues today. The problem is far from just local: the area suffering from this reverse baby boom comprises 279 counties in six states, totaling nearly 470,000 square miles. Included are Wyoming and Montana, most of North and South Dakota, three fourths of Nebraska, and more than half of Kansas. In the past ten years 16 percent of the lower forty-eight states has seen barely one percent of the nation's births.
The region is already underpopulated. As a whole, the 279 counties average only six people per square mile, according to the 1990 census. Even this average would be lower were it not for a few comparatively populous places, such as Hall County, Nebraska, which is served by an interstate highway and is thus a center of trade; in 1990 it had ninety-one people per square mile. In that census half the counties had fewer than four people per square mile and nineteen counties had fewer than one. In contrast, New Jersey has nearly 1,100, and three New England states taken together average more than 750. This area can ill afford the economic and social consequences of a lost generation of unborn children. When it comes time to pass the torch to the next generation, too few hands will be waiting.

After the end of the Second World War the Baby Boom began: in 1946, 3.4 million births were recorded in the United States. The annual total climbed, and from 1954 through 1964 births averaged 4.2 million. Then, during the next dozen years, births declined nationally. The low period was 1973 through 1976, when they barely exceeded 3.1 million a year. The national decline was only temporary, however: by 1977 the number of births began to rise, and in 1989 it again exceeded 4 million. Births remained above 4 million through 1993, and the Census Bureau projects that they will remain at about 3.9 million through 2005.

But in the six-state region the situation has been different. Even the Baby Boom was not as pronounced here; it peaked earlier and the subsequent decline was greater. The region in fact experienced a "baby bust" for nearly fifteen years, from about 1965 through the late 1970s. Nationally births declined 27 percent, from the peak of 4.3 million in 1957 to a low of just over 3.1 million in 1973. But, taking each state's peak and low years from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, in Nebraska births declined 34 percent, in Kansas 40 percent, in South Dakota 42 percent, and in North Dakota 44 percent.

An upswing in the region mirroring that in the country as a whole has failed to occur. Births in these counties rose slightly from about 1979 through 1984 -- a period known locally as the "Baby Boom echo," resulting from the original Baby Boomers' reaching their peak childbearing years. In reality the rise was barely a blip. In North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska not a single year of this "echo" saw as many births as even the slowest year of the Baby Boom.

By 1985 births had begun to fall throughout the region, and the decline has accelerated since 1990. It has been greatest in rural areas, with the 98th Meridian serving as an approximate dividing line. The portions of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas west of this line have experienced an unprecedented "child drought" during the past ten years, and the birth rate for the past five years amounts to a child famine.

Consider Loup County, in central Nebraska, whose residents gave birth to twenty-two to twenty-nine children each year for fifteen consecutive years during the Baby Boom. In 1995, one child was born. Similarly, the residents of Hayes County, Nebraska, had up to seventy-two births a year during the Baby Boom. In 1995, five children were born to the county's residents. In 1951, 185 children were born to residents of Hitchcock County, Nebraska; in 1995, twenty-six children were born. And these counties are not isolated examples. During the first ten years of the Baby Boom the residents of the fifty-nine Nebraska counties west (or mostly west) of the 98th Meridian averaged more than 12,000 births a year. In 1994 and 1995 births to residents of those counties, which cover more than 58,000 square miles, totaled fewer than 6,000 a year.

This dismal picture has very few exceptions. Three or four of Nebraska's rural counties have bucked the trend, thanks to the interstate highway system, which has helped connect them to more-populated areas, and thus has slowed rural flight. Births to residents of those counties have stabilized at 10 to 30 percent below prior levels. But the highway makes very little difference to most of the counties in the western half of the state, which remain isolated and underpopulated. And Nebraska has not even had the greatest declines in this six-state region.

Births in North and South Dakota fell still further. In much of North Dakota the declines are apocalyptic: From 1947 through 1956 annual births averaged more than 17,000, but in 1995 they totaled only 8,479 -- a decline by half. Births to residents of twenty-eight of the state's fifty-three counties declined by more than three quarters, and in only seven counties did they decline by less than half. In 1995 births in South Dakota totaled fewer than 10,500 -- fewer than in any year of the Depression.

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