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Oregon's Critical Condition Counties
by Guy Tauer
Published Oct-21-2013

A recent article in the Huffington Post "Census: Record 1 In 3 Counties Dying Off, Hit By Aging Population, Weakened Local Economies" (March 14, 2013), offers a sobering summation in that descriptive title regarding much of rural and rust-belt America. These troubled counties are struggling due to aging population and weakened local economies that are causing young adults to relocate to other areas. The article cites Census data that shows 1,135 of the nation's 3,143 counties are experiencing natural decrease, meaning deaths are exceeding births. That number rose from 880 counties in 2009.

Dying is a pretty strong word, so for this Oregon-specific analysis we will analyze a number of employment, demographic and population statistics that attempt to quantify Oregon's critical-condition counties. Let's take a look at these factors, covering the period from 2002 to 2012, to provide an overall health assessment:

  • Total nonfarm payroll change
  • Total population change
  • Natural increase in population
  • Population change for the 18 to 34 year-old age group

Each of these factors are weighted equally, and each county is assigned a point based on its place on the ranked list. For example, the county with the most job growth would get the most points, while the county with the least job growth, or greatest decline, would earn one point. Total points will be summed to rank Oregon's critical-condition counties.

Nonfarm Payroll Employment
Areas that are gaining jobs over the long run tend to have more vibrant economies, rising wealth, a growing tax base, and many desirable attributes that either keep residents from out-migrating, or create incentives for workers and people to relocate to the area. One might argue that this is a very important factor and should be weighted more than other factors. But for this simple analysis, all factors get equal weights in the final ranking.

Of course, there are always side-effects when an area experiences change. Growing economies can outstrip the supply of housing for the workforce, creating rising housing costs. More population can increase traffic, crime, and demand for local government services such as schools, roads, and utilities. But for this analysis, we will ignore these and downplay the voices of the NIMBY - not in my back yard -crowd, those that see growth and change as only ruining the place they moved to.

Figure 1 shows the areas that have experienced the strongest job growth over the decade. Those areas around the Willamette Valley, Portland, the Columbia Corridor in northern Oregon, and Deschutes County far outshine the sparsely populated Central and Eastern portions of Oregon. Table 1 displays the net and percent change in payroll employment for the 10 counties with the largest percent declines over the decade. Douglas County (-4,200) and Klamath County (-1,040) show total losses exceeding 1,000 jobs. Many areas are suffering from structural declines in natural resource-based industries, and have not seen recoveries from the Great Recession the way Portland and other northern Oregon regions have. Slow population growth in many of these areas also contributes to the lack of job growth. Without population increase, demand for services and related employment will have a difficult time showing sustained growth.

Table 1
Total Nonfarm Employment, 
2002 and 2012 Annual Averages
  2002 2012 Net Change Percent Change
Harney 2,600 2,150 -450 -17.3%
Grant 2,670 2,220 -450 -16.9%
Crook 6,090 5,420 -670 -11.0%
Douglas 38,250 34,050 -4,200 -11.0%
Wheeler 330 300 -30 -9.1%
Lake 2,260 2,060 -200 -8.8%
Jefferson 6,180 5,860 -320 -5.2%
Union 10,340 9,850 -490 -4.7%
Klamath 22,690 21,650 -1,040 -4.6%
Curry 6,370 6,090 -280 -4.4%
Malheur 11,980 11,520 -460 -3.8%
Figure 1
Employment growth rate, 2002-2012
Population Trends
A handful of Oregon counties had net population declines over the past decade. Table 2 shows the 10 counties with the least percent population increase since 2002. In contrast to these declining or slow growing counties, Oregon's statewide population increased by over 380,000 residents, growing 10.9 percent over the past 10 years.

Oregon counties with the largest percent declines in total population tend to be small. Baker and Malheur are the only shrinking counties where the 2012 population exceeded 15,000 residents.

Getting back to that Huffington Post article mentioned earlier, while some counties experienced a net gain in population over the decade, many of those also experienced a "natural decrease" where deaths exceeded births, according to Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer and sociology professor who researched the findings reported. He states, "These counties are in a pretty steep downward spiral. The young people leave and the older adults stay in place and age. Unless something drastic changes, these areas are likely to have more and more natural decrease." In Oregon, much of the natural decrease has been offset by net migration. But in many rural and coastal counties, it has been the in-migration of retirees and older residents that have kept population levels from falling or falling more than they otherwise would have. Table 3 shows the top Oregon counties with the greatest natural decrease, expressed as a percent of their 2002 population totals. These counties tend to be smaller and more rural, with older populations.

On the other hand, natural increases were experienced in larger, typically more urban counties or metropolitan areas:

  • Clackamas (+11,153 or 3.2%)
  • Deschutes (+6,669 or 5.4%)
  • Salem MSA (+24,398 or 6.9%)
  • Washington (+47,291 or 10.2%)

Table 2
Slowest-Growing Oregon County Population, 2002-2012
  2012 Population 2002 Population Net Change Percent Change
Wheeler 1,425 1,511 -86 -5.7%
Sherman 1,765 1,834 -69 -3.8%
Grant 7,450 7,732 -282 -3.6%
Harney 7,315 7,521 -206 -2.7%
Baker 16,210 16,618 -408 -2.5%
Wallowa 7,015 7,129 -114 -1.6%
Malheur 31,395 31,863 -468 -1.5%
Gilliam 1,900 1,896 4 0.2%
Coos 62,890 62,671 219 0.3%
Lincoln 46,295 45,069 1,226 2.7%
Klamath 66,740 64,533 2,207 3.4%
Table 3
2002-2012 Natural Population Change
  Natural Increase (Deaths-Births) Natural Increase Percent of 2002 Population
Curry -1,760 -8.2%
Wheeler -107 -7.1%
Josephine -2,783 -3.6%
Coos -2,225 -3.5%
Gilliam -55 -2.9%
Grant -213 -2.8%
Wallowa -194 -2.7%
Lake -185 -2.5%
Baker -403 -2.4%
Lincoln -956 -2.1%
Population Trends for Young Adults Ages 18 to 34
Many areas love to attract retirees, as they bring accumulated wealth that they can now spend in the areas they retire to. But younger populations and in-migrants tend to seek regions that offer abundant job prospects; housing costs that are not driven up by "equity refugees"; opportunities for furthering one's education; and more opportunities that appeal to those with diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Oregon's 18 to 34 year-old population rose by 8.6 percent from 2002 to 2012, and that group accounted for 23.3 percent of the state's population in 2012. All of the top counties that had the least growth in 18 to 34 year-old population also had a lower concentration of that cohort in 2012 than Oregon overall.

Table 4
Population Change: Young Adults 18-34
  Percent of Population Age 18-34 Percent Change 2002-2012
Crook  19.1% -15.8%
Gilliam  15.3% -12.3%
Grant  15.0% -12.1%
Morrow  21.7% -9.7%
Malheur  23.6% -5.4%
Harney  16.4% -2.1%
Baker  14.8% 0.4%
Clackamas  20.4% 1.8%
Tillamook  16.1% 2.0%
Klamath  19.9% 2.4%
The Results - Oregon's Critical Condition County Rankings
Table 5 shows the summary rankings for the four factors in this analysis of Oregon's critical-condition counties. Each factor was ranked, with the worst- performing county receiving a score of one. The 15 counties with the lowest total scores across factors are shown here. While there is certainly room for debate if these are the best measures to rank a county's overall health, it does provide a consistent framework to analyze a number of factors. These are just a few metrics that analysts have cited as important factors relating to an area's overall health and may provide some indications of whether there are truly dying counties in Oregon.

Figure 2 shows the critical condition ranking for all Oregon counties.

Table 5
Oregon Critical Condition County Summary
  Nonfarm Payroll Population Change Natural Increase 18-34 Population Change Critical Condition Point Total
Grant 2 3 6 3 14
Wheeler 5 1 2 11 19
Harney 1 4 15 6 26
Baker 15 5 9 7 36
Gilliam 28 8 5 2 43
Douglas 3 17 13 14 47
Coos 16 9 4 18 47
Curry 10 11 1 27 49
Klamath 9 11 19 10 49
Crook 3 29 16 1 49
Malheur 11 7 27 5 50
Tillamook 19 14 11 10 54
Lincoln 21 10 10 16 57
Lake 6 16 8 28 58
Wallowa 17 6 7 29 59
Figure 2
Critical condition counties