Residents Are Fleeing These 8 Fastest-Shrinking Counties in Pennsylvania

Written by Samantha Stanich
Updated: September 3, 2023
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Aerial view of Ben Franklin Bridge and Philadelphia skyline at sunset. Ben Franklin Bridge is a suspension bridge connecting Philadelphia and Camden, NJ.

The Keystone State’s population continued to decline as Americans migrated to the South.

©Mihai_Andritoiu/Shutterstock.com

In recent years, the Northeastern United States saw the largest loss of population among any region. Pennsylvania’s population fell by about 40,000 residents. Out of the state’s 40 shrinking counties, eight counties are shrinking faster than the others in Pennsylvania. These counties lost over 2,000 residents between 2020 and 2022.

During the pandemic, urban areas saw their populations decrease as residents migrated to the south. In 2022, the Northeast was estimated to lose 218,851 people. Pennsylvania’s decline was the nation’s fourth largest behind New York, California, and Illinois. And though the Keystone State’s population decreased in a short time, the state still ranks fifth highest populated state behind California, Texas, Florida, and New York.

Read on to learn about Pennsylvania’s counties’ declining population and the effects a declining population has on the surrounding areas.

Allegheny County is the second largest Pennsylvania county by population, right behind Philadelphia County.

1. Philadelphia County

Aerial view over the neighborhoods and streets of Philadelphia PA USA

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, Philadelphia continues to lose residents.

©Real Window Creative/Shutterstock.com

Philadelphia County, including the City of Brotherly Love, isn’t feeling the warmth of a rising population. The shrinking county shares the same geographic borders as the city. And even though Philadelphia remained the sixth most populated city in America behind Phoenix, there is a major difference. Philly lost residents while Phoenix’s population increased. In the 2020 Census, the cities had nearly identical population numbers, but as of July 2022, Phoenix saw its population increase by 36,219, while Philadelphia’s decreased by 36,541.

The city’s 1.4% population decline is consistent with northeast cities as a whole. It is the largest drop since 1977, reversing over a decade of growth. Philadelphia’s population peaked at 1.6 million in 2020, but it now has the same population as it had in 2014. This is just one of the shrinking counties in Pennsylvania that contains a major city.

Top 10 U.S. Cities by Population and Population Change

RankingCityPopulationChange
1New York8,335,897−468,297
2Los Angeles3,822,238−76,529
3Chicago2,665,039−81,313
4Houston2,302,8781,306
5Phoenix1,644,40936,219
6Philadelphia1,567,258−36,451
7San Antonio1,472,90938,542
8Dallas1,299,544 −4,773
9Austin974,44712,547
10Jacksonville971,31921,703

2. Allegheny County

The Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers converge in Western Appalachia to form the Ohio River under the skyscrapers of Pittsburgh.

The region is experiencing typical trends of natural population decline.

©Jesse Lee Tucker / CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

Another major city in Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, sits in a declining county. Allegheny County is the second largest Pennsylvania county by population, right behind Philadelphia County. Located in Southwestern Pennsylvania, it is known for the three major rivers that flow through it. The Allegheny River and the Monongahela River converge in downtown Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River.

The county’s population declined by 12,192 people between July 2021 and July 2022. According to the census, the decrease was the 10th largest in the country. This is the second straight year the Pittsburgh region saw its population decrease. The shrinking county is part of the 10-county Southwestern region of Pennsylvania.

3. Erie County

Erie County faces an aging population. Residents are retiring or opting out of the workforce quickly.

©Carrie’s Camera/Shutterstock.com

This northernmost county in Pennsylvania saw a population decrease of around 267, 689, or 1.2% of the population, from 2021 to 2022. The county is the state’s only port on the St. Lawrence Seaway. It is a strategic shipping point for industrial coal, iron ore, steel, salt, stone, and scrap metal.

The biggest city in the county, Erie, even dropped to the fifth largest city in the state, falling behind Reading. It has an estimated population of 93,511 residents. A declining economy is one of the reasons for the population loss. Erie’s economy always lagged behind national and statewide economic indicators. When COVID-19 arrived, any momentum the county saw was abruptly stopped. Erie County lost around 26,000 jobs during the first four months of 2020.

The economy is slowly recovering; however, Erie County still faces an aging population which contributes to its shrinking. Employees are retiring or opting out of the workforce quicker than they are being replaced. The younger generation of workers is reevaluating the nature of work itself. They are looking for jobs rather than careers, and embracing roles that afford them the flexibility to have a more appropriate work-life balance. When they don’t find those opportunities in Erie County, they leave in search of other places.

4. Fayette County

View of West Brownsville, Pennsylvania from across the river

Officials attribute the loss of residents to the decline in coal production, although some mining continues.

©FabisT/Shutterstock.com

The county is part of the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area. The southern border of Fayette County is the southern border of Pennsylvania at both the Pennsylvania–Maryland state line, the Mason-Dixon line, and the Pennsylvania–West Virginia state line. The southwestern county is another shrinking county in Pennsylvania due to a slowing economy and an aging population. According to the Census, Fayette County’s population declined by nearly 2,000 residents between April 2020 and June 2021.

Across the state, 1,759 Pennsylvania municipalities declined in total population. Several of those communities are in Fayette County. And they experienced the greatest percentage decrease in the state. This includes Washington Township, Connellsville, Uniontown, and South Union Township. All of these communities saw a 1.8% decrease in their populations.

5. Clearfield County

It's partly cloudy over the roads and architecture in Pennsylvania at Carlisle

Clearfield County saw a population decrease of 2,000 or more residents.

©Real Window Creative/Shutterstock.com

This centrally located county saw a large percentage decline in estimated people from 2010 to 2022. The shrinking county in Pennsylvania is down approximately 3,700 residents or 4%. This happened even though Clearfield County offers direct access to major markets in the Northeastern United States and the Midwest via US Interstate 80. The interstate runs directly through the center of the county. Once again, the main reason for the population decline is an aging population.

In most shrinking counties, the population of people aged 65 and older is at least 21.5%. According to Penn State Associate Geology and Demography Professor Chris Fowler, an older population usually correlates to a higher mortality rate and a lower birth rate, which lowers the population.

Fowler also said the pandemic changed people’s moving habits. The pandemic moved people out to the countryside or to a less urban environment. Even after the height of the pandemic, those people stayed put in their new environments. Clearfield County is also a bit too far from Penn State University to reap the benefits of college enrollment..

6. Westmoreland County

View of York, Pennsylvania, from Top of the World.

According to the Census, Northeast small towns’ populations declined by 0.4%.

©Jon Bilous/Shutterstock.com

Westmoreland County is the second-largest county in Southwestern Pennsylvania. However, it is in a population decline and shed 1,708 residents according to the last Census. The majority of municipalities in the county shrunk, with only two in Westmoreland seeing significant growth.

The county was the first county in the colony of Pennsylvania whose entire territorial boundary was located west of the Allegheny Mountains. It is named after Westmorland, a historic county in England.

Shrinking population is a problem felt across Pennsylvania, with almost 800 municipalities — nearly one-third of the 2,560 in all — having fewer than 1,000 residents, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. In fact, Westmoreland County is in the top 10 counties that saw the biggest declines in their populations over the decade.

RankCountyStatePopulation Growth (2010-2020)
1Cook CountyIllinois-90,693
2Wayne CountyMichigan-74,224
3Cuyahoga CountyOhio-50,220
4Genesee CountyMichigan-20,165
5Suffolk CountyNew York-20,064
6Caddo ParishLouisiana-18,173
7West MorelandPennsylvania-17,942
8Hinds CountyMississippi-17,751
9Kanawha CountyWest Virginia-16,672
10Cambria CountyPennsylvania-14,786

Again, Westmoreland County saw a natural population decline with more deaths than births. It is not a new trend. The county, with a population of 352,057, recently had 2,378 more deaths than births. Its natural population decline easily eclipsed the 873 residents it added. However, since the start of the pandemic, the shrinking county continues to decline.

7. Beaver County

Homes in Jenkintown Pennsylvania USA

The county is part of the seven-county Pittsburgh metropolitan area.

©Felix Mizioznikov/Shutterstock.com

Beaver County has lost 2,551 residents since 2020. This is a 1.5% decline, with 1,237 people coming from 2021 to 2022. In fact, between 2010 and 2021, the county shrank by an average of 0.2% per year.

The shrinking county is located in the southwest part of Pennsylvania. It borders Lawrence County on the north, Butler County on the east, Allegheny County on the southeast, and Washington County on the south. It also borders Ohio and West Virginia on the west.

8. Cambria County

Aerial view of Dwight D. Eisenhower highway 70 road near small Bentleyville town in Pennsylvania, US

Efforts are underway in Cambria County to rebrand it as something other than a dying former steel town.

©ungvar/Shutterstock.com

Cambria County experienced the second-biggest total population loss – and the eighth largest such loss by percentage – among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties between the 2010 and 2020 U.S. Census counts. A decade ago, there were 143,679 people in the county. According to the 2020 Census, that number has fallen to 133,472. The drop of 10,207 ranked behind only Westmoreland County’s decline of 10,506.

Cambria lost 7.1% of its population. This is the third-largest drop in its two-century existence with an 11% in the 1980s and an 8.1% drop in the 1960s. Between 2019 and 2020, the population of Cambria County declined from 133,009 to 131,611.

The county is known for its hunting, fishing, camping, swimming, and hiking scene. Its tranquil state parks and forestland provide habitation for many types of plant and animal life.

Summary of The 8 Fastest-Shrinking Counties in Pennsylvania

Here are 8 Fastest-Shrinking Counties in Pennsylvania:

RankCounties
1Philadelphia County
2Allegheny County
3Erie County
4Fayette County
5Clearfield County
6Westmoreland County
7Beaver County
8Cambria County

Conclusion

Aerial panorama of Allentown, Pennsylvania skyline and Albertus L. Meyers Bridge (aka Eighth Street Bridge) on late sunny afternoon . Allentown is Pennsylvania's third most populous city.

Pennsylvania was one of 18 states to lose residents in 2022.

©Mihai_Andritoiu/Shutterstock.com

The new data from the United States Census Bureau shows Pennsylvania’s population problems remain persistent. The state’s total population is decreasing, and its counties are shrinking. Though natural population decrease drove the decrease, residents also left for warmer states and more work opportunities.

It seems like the trend will continue. The Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) forecasts that, due to outmigration and an aging population, the state will lose another 250,000 working-age residents by 2025. As one of 18 states to lose residents in 2022, Pennsylvania saw nearly 40,000 folks pack their bags and move out of the Commonwealth. It was the fourth-largest population decline in the U.S.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © A.F.Smith/Shutterstock.com


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