WASHINGTON — Across the United States, rural counties are losing population for the first time ever because of waning interest among baby boomers in moving to far-flung locations for retirement and recreation, according to new census estimates released Thursday.
Long weighed down by dwindling populations in farming and coal communities and the movement of young people to cities, rural America is now being hit by sputtering growth in what were once residential hot spots for baby boomers.
The census estimates, as of July 2012, show that would-be retirees are opting to stay put in urban areas.
Recent weakness in the economy means some boomers have less savings than a decade ago to buy a vacation home in the countryside, which often becomes a full-time residence after retirement.
Cities are also boosting urban living, a potential draw for boomers who may prefer to age closer to accessible health care.
"This period may simply be an interruption in suburbanization, or it could turn out to be the end of a major demographic regime that has transformed small towns and rural areas," said John Cromartie, a geographer at the Agriculture Department who analyzed the data.
About 46.2 million people, or 15 percent of the U.S. population, live in rural counties, which spread across 72 percent of the nation's land area. From 2011 to 2012, those nonmetro areas lost more than 40,000 people, a 0.1 percent drop.
About half under 5 are minorities: In a first, America's racial and ethnic minorities now make up about half of the under-5 age group, reflecting sweeping changes by race and class among young people.
Because of an aging population, non-Hispanic whites last year recorded more deaths than births.
These milestones, revealed in 2012 census estimates Thursday, are the latest signs of a historic shift in which whites will become a minority by 2043.