Life in this industrial area has slowed to a shuffle along with the steel mills that used to power it. Young people have moved away, leaving an aging population that no longer has the energy to put on street fairs or holiday parades.
In fact, this community in West Virginia’s northern panhandle holds an unwelcome distinction. With just 71 babies born on average for every 100 residents who die, Brooke County, in which Weirton is partly located, has the largest such gap in the nation among counties in metropolitan areas, save for a handful of places that are magnets for retirees.
The main reason Brooke County is so far off the national number — which is 171 births to 100 deaths — is that it has missed out on one of the dominant demographic trends to emerge from the recent census: the influx of young immigrants into communities across the United States.Throughout the United States (and Europe, as well) the fertility of the white population has dropped below replacement level, mirroring events among the Japanese and the Chinese. At the same time, the loss of job opportunities in smaller towns at the fringe of urban life means that even if young people were having two or three children, they would be having them somewhere else.
According to Kenneth Johnson, the senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, there are now 853 counties with similar population trends — “more coffins than cradles,” as he calls it — including parts of the Great Plains, the Midwest and New England.