In the broadest sense, the population changes Kentucky has seen over the last 50 years have largely fallen in line with the country as a whole.
We have both become increasingly urban, for example, with Kentucky’s tipping point coming in 1970, when the U.S. Census found for the first time that more than half of our citizens lived in or near a city. Both of us are also witnessing the same graying trend, which is no surprise because of advances in medicine and the growing number of Baby Boomers reaching retirement age.
There are still some distinct differences. For one, our rural population – which is nearly four times bigger than the country’s percentage-wise – saw minimal growth between 2000 and 2010 when compared to the national average.
We also did not grow quite as fast as the country during that decade, although our 7.4 percent increase was more than twice as large as the growth rates in such surrounding states as Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia. Our rate was also larger than Missouri’s and Indiana’s.
Earlier this year, the Kentucky State Data Center dug a little deeper into the Census data to see how much has changed population-wise at the household level.
The center, which is based at the University of Louisville, found that the commonwealth’s population has grown by little more than 40 percent since 1960, but the number of households has doubled. As a result, the number of people in each home has declined by almost a third, from 3.49 people then to 2.45 now.
When comparing the growth of Kentucky households across the decades, the 1970s was by far the leader, with its rate almost twice as high as the 1960s and three times as much as the 1980s.
At the same time, not all of those homes were filled. In 2010, nearly 11 percent were vacant, which was the highest figure since 1960. The severe economic downturn that began about five years ago was undoubtedly a leading cause.
The center’s data also highlight other interesting changes about Kentucky, such as the fact that, between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of citizens 65 and older grew five times as fast as those 18 and younger. The number of citizens in the 30 to 44 age category actually declined during the same timeframe.
Looking ahead, it’s expected that, sometime in the 2030s, Kentucky will see its death rate exceed its birth rate. In other words, if not for the projected influx of people moving to Kentucky, we would actually see our total population begin to decline a generation from now.
In fact, something like that is already taking place in 20 of our counties, according to the data center, and another dozen are not far behind.
Our rural areas are taking the brunt of that. The limited population gains that these parts of the state saw between 2000 and 2010 have been completely wiped out in just the last two years.
Trying to find ways to help our rural areas not just survive but thrive, while not hindering all that our cities offer, is one of our biggest challenges we face as a state. Another is ensuring that we are meeting the educational and economical needs of our younger citizens and the quality-of-life needs of our oldest.
These balancing acts cannot be achieved in a budget cycle or two, but over the long term. As a result, we have to do even more planning to be ready; otherwise, we risk having another Census tell us that we are too late.