m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to the Table of Contents.

J U N E  1 9 9 7

Society
Slow Death in the Great Plains
Demographic Map of the US

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

by Harlow A. Hyde

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.
Discuss this article in the Community & Society forum of Post & Riposte.


Related link:

  • Change and Decline in the Midwest
    From Geography USA: A Virtual Textbook, by associate professor Alan A. Lew, Department of Geography and Public Planning, Northern Arizona University.
  • 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.

    The situation in Wyoming is nearly as bad. With more than 97,000 square miles, Wyoming invariably produces fewer children a year than Washington D.C., which has only sixty-one square miles. Montana is also suffering a drought of children.

    Kansas, the most populous of the six states, has experienced some of the greatest declines. Consider, for example, Russell County, the home of Bob Dole. What has happened to Russell County, smack-dab in the middle of Kansas, is typical of dozens of counties. During the five-year period from 1949 to 1953 Russell County saw an average of 356 births a year. From 1991 to 1995 annual births have averaged only seventy-four -- a decline of more than 79 percent. Russell County is not a throwaway, back-roads, dead-end place with no history and no hope. What happens to Russell County, and other counties, matters -- both to Kansas and to the social fabric of the whole country. With only seventy-four children born a year, Russell County will be hard put to hold on to the gains of the past century. It's as if much of the great central breadbasket of North America had been ordered to downsize and rid itself of more than half its work force and social structure during the next thirty years.

    BELYING any sense of crisis, most towns in this region seem prosperous. This is true because much of the population is still in its prime: the oldest Baby Boomers turned fifty last year, and a majority of the cohort is thirty-five to forty-nine years old. They may be finished or nearly finished having children, but that hardly means they have one foot in the grave. The problem is that the next generation is not being sown: in 2025 who will do the reaping? And will there be anything left to reap?

    With fewer children, schools will be closed and consolidated. As the population drops, the Postal Service will close post offices. Government at all levels will reduce staff. Elks Clubs and American Legion posts will close, as will movie theaters and barber shops. Churches with dwindling memberships will be unable to support a pastor. In many towns the clinic or hospital will close, owing to a lack of patients and an inability to retain doctors. The effects of reduced economic input will ripple through the local economy -- particularly in rural areas, where people depend on one another. As the cutbacks continue, the value of real estate will plummet. Adding to the problem, in fifteen years Baby Boomers will begin to retire. Many will move to Omaha, Wichita, Denver, or even Texas. WOOFs (well-off older folks) will seek easier climes, and houses in many small towns will go begging. A similar fate awaits commercial property.

    The colleges throughout the region will also suffer from declining birth rates. College and university enrollments will be high over the short term, because of the comparatively large number of children born during the "echo" years. In recent decades college towns have been insulated from the ebb and flow of the economy. By 2010, however, enrollments will decline substantially.

    Without doubt the decline in births will gradually drain the life out of the region. Children are the key to holding society together. Any village, town, county, culture, or other social unit is just one generation from extinction. Without more children, the aging social fabric will fray and finally fall apart.

    Economists and sociologists teach that there are critical masses -- minimum numbers below which essential "synergisms" break down. These synergisms build and sustain communities. A community built on a hundred births a year cannot remain cemented if births drop (and stay) below fifty a year. The areas in which births have declined by more than half are destined to undergo profound changes within a generation. For some communities the changes will begin within a decade.

    Fighting the decline may be like opposing old age: the fight may be unwinnable in any case. Decades of attempts to attract new residents, by competing for industry, agricultural development, tourism, and access to large highways, have, with a few exceptions, been unsuccessful. It may be best just to get out of Dodge while the getting is good. If Russell, Kansas, and hundreds of similar communities are going to turn into ghost towns within thirty to fifty years, perhaps the wisest choice is simply to pack up now. In the years ahead some communities will struggle valiantly against uncertain odds; many others will die with barely a whimper.

    The Great Plains were the land of opportunity, the home of legions of pilgrims and seekers. These brave souls were the heroes of O. E. Rölvaag's Giants in the Earth and Willa Cather's O Pioneers! They lived in conditions we would consider unthinkable, suffering years and even generations of hardship, deprivation, and poverty, often working themselves to death. Progress was at first glacial; the drought of the 1890s ruined thousands. But the survivors toiled on, unwilling to admit the possibility of defeat. And over the past hundred years some of the nation's strongest families and finest communities have resulted from that toil.

    No one can pretend that the lack of children is not critical. The present decline in births condemns the future: any kind of economic development relies on a number of children sufficient to fill the next generation. If anything can help the future of these 279 counties, it is the decision by Baby Boomers and their children to have another baby.

    Illustration by Alison Seiffer


    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; June 1997; Slow Death in the Great Plains Volume 279, No. 6; pages 42-45.

    m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture