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From 2010 to 2019, Colorado has enjoyed a 14.5% growth in population. Urban areas, such as Denver, have had more significant growth than rural areas. The growth has led to more jobs, more paid taxes, and a general boost to the economy of the State.
However, Colorado consists of 64 counties and many of the rural counties struggle to maintain a viable economy. A declining economy means fewer jobs, fewer jobs means less income for residents, and less income means a decline in the tax base for essential county services. It is the death spiral that a rural county suffers, leading to a collapse of its economy. When the 2020 Census is complete, there are seventeen rural Colorado counties that will likely show a decline in population.
Typical Economic History
Colorado, like many other U.S. States, established an economy on agriculture and mining. Also like many other States, as businesses became more centralized and industrialized, rural areas became outpaced by the income potential of urban areas. This conversion of the foundation of our economy left rural areas isolated from the economic benefits of newer industries.
Arteries of the Economy
Geographic location has played a major role in the economic fortunes for Colorado counties. Most pioneers heading west avoided the difficult mountain passes of Colorado and traveled through Wyoming. It wasn’t until the trains came to Colorado that significant growth began. In the 20th century, paved roads allowed smaller towns to emerge along highways that could provide services to the traveler.
The completion of Interstate 80 (I-80) through Wyoming, and Interstate 70 (I-70) through Colorado, siphoned off the traffic that fed the economy of many smaller communities. Even communities located on I-70 found that faster roads and improved gas mileage hurt their economy. The result was a loss of jobs and revenue in small towns outside of urban corridors. By the end of the 20th century, many of Colorado’s remote communities began seeing stagnation and decline in their population.
Off The Path
The counties experiencing population decline since 2010, indicate that isolation from Colorado’s central urban core is continuing to impact communities in the State. Thirteen of the counties experiencing a population decline are located on the Colorado State border. The other four are adjacent to a county located on the border.
Colorado has 26 counties that have a population under 10,000 (2019 est.) Most of these counties are also located at or near the State border. Eleven of the seventeen counties experiencing a decline in population also have less than 10,000 residents. This means that many of the counties losing residents are exacerbating the crisis for the county.
But not every county on the fringes of Colorado’s borders is losing population. Are there common traits of dying counties? The answer is yes, and the attitudes of the residents may be a factor.
Five Common Characteristics of a Dying Colorado County
1. Small Population
The total population of all 17 dying counties is just over 130,000 people. That means that the average population for the counties is well below 10,000 people.
2. Large ‘White Only’ Population
The average ‘White Only’ demographic for Colorado is 68%. The 17 dying counties have an average ‘White Only’ demographic of 73%.
3. Fewer College Degrees…by almost half
Over 40% of Colorado residents have college degrees. In the 17 dying counties, only 21% have college degrees.
4. Average per Capita Income is Less…about one-third less
The average per capita income for a Colorado resident is $36,415. The average for the 17 dying counties is $24,735.
5. Strong Republican Support
Rural counties tend to be more conservative, but these 17 dying counties are diehard Republican fanatics. All of the 17 dying counties voted for Donald Trump in 2016 by an average of 71% of the vote. In addition, almost all of the counties have voted for a Republican candidate for President in each election for the past 40 years.
Not All Small Counties Vote Red
It is easy to assume that all rural counties with a small population are conservative and vote Republican. That is not true in Colorado. Most of the 26 smaller counties do vote Republican, but there are eight small counties that have voted for the Democratic Presidential candidate a majority of the time during the last 40 years.
Those eight Blue counties with populations under 10,000 have a ‘White Only’ demographic slightly less than Colorado’s average, an average population growth rate of 8.5%, have a college degree rate of about 50% greater than the dying counties, and have an average per capita income that is about halfway between the dying counties average and the State average.
Does Political Ideology Determine the Fate of a County?
The correlation between a county’s fate and the political leanings of its citizens does seem to exist, but does ideology determine the fate of a county, or does the county’s situation determine the political ideology? There is no obvious answer to that question.
Still, the political ideology reflects the attitudes of its citizens in decision-making and the fact that all of the counties in Colorado that are losing population, voted for Trump in the last election, and that the long term history of those counties has been to vote Republican, it would seem that the traditional political leanings of a county have an impact on the success or failure of a Colorado county.
Dying Counties Don’t Die
The tragedy of dying counties is that they don’t die.
Colorado has three counties with a population under 900 people each. These three counties have their own county commissioners, their own county administrative offices, and their own county sheriff’s department. All three of these counties are adjacent to each other and yet they exist as separate entities.
It would be logical to fold a failed county into an adjacent county; however, that is not what happens to counties that no longer are viable. These counties become wards of the State, dependent on State tax revenues to exist.
In the end, dying counties become dependent on the rest of the citizens of Colorado.