LAPORTE, Pa. — Nothing much was happening here in the Sullivan County seat on a recent weekday afternoon. Summer visitors to the county, a rural haven for nature lovers 165 miles northwest of Philadelphia, had left and fall foliage tourists were weeks away.
There were more crows making noise along Main Street than cars and in the Laporte Cafe, across from the courthouse, all the tables were empty.
“Well, there’s not a whole lot of folks around here to begin with,” said owner Howard Denmon.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, there are even fewer people in Sullivan County today than a decade ago. Sullivan has long been one of Pennsylvania’s least-populated counties. The population — 6,428 in 2010 — hasn’t topped 10,000 in more than a century. County officials had expected the 2020 U.S. Census to reveal a small population increase, however, confirming the influx of people they’d seen buying homes and living there during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the census found that Sullivan’s population saw a steep decline, down just more than 9% since 2010.
“It says we lost 588 people, which honestly, I would guess that we probably netted about the same number if everything had been calculated properly,” said Donna Iannone, a Sullivan County commissioner.
Throughout the state, rural counties such as Sullivan saw the steepest population declines, according to the U.S. Census, including a 10.6% drop in Cameron and 9.6% drop in Forest out west. Susquehanna County’s 11.4% swing was the largest in the state. Kyle Kopko, director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, said rural areas have been losing population for decades.
“This wasn’t unexpected,” he told The Inquirer.
Kopko said data will likely show that rural populations are continuing to grow older.
Many officials in those counties say their population losses were larger than anticipated and those reductions have myriad consequences, including federal funding, health care, the phasing out of school buildings, and political clout.
“The lower number means you have less opportunities,” said Richard Ainey, chairman of the Susquehanna County Democratic Party and the county auditor. “I’m leery of ours.”
Susquehanna County, a hotbed for natural gas drilling 160 miles north of Philadelphia, lost nearly 5,000 residents since 2010, according to the census.
Last month, an Inquirer analysis of the census data showed that urban areas and surrounding counties continued to grow in population. The Inquirer reported that predominantly white, rural areas may see their outsized voting power shrink when Pennsylvania’s congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn. Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district, which covers a large swath of rural northern counties, including Susquehanna, saw large population loss. Rep. Fred Keller, who represents the 12th district, declined to comment on the 2020 Census.
Lisa Davis, director of the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health, says the loss of any rural district will mean one less elected official fighting for health-care funding to those areas. Rural America has lost hospitals at a far greater rate than urban areas.
Even in some rural counties that gained population, such as Centre, officials are unhappy with the outcome.
Home to Penn State University, Centre County was expecting to see population gains of 5.5% instead of the 2.7% increase the census found. The borough of State College, home to the university, actually lost population.
“We know why it happened,” said County Commissioner Michael Pipe. “It was COVID.”
The pandemic compounded the 2020 Census, making a massive undertaking more difficult and potentially dangerous for workers out visiting homes. The Census Bureau urged Americans to use the online, self-reporting tool but Iannone, of Sullivan County, said many residents did that and were still visited by census takers. She said census takers visited some houses numerous times and others not at all.
“We don’t feel like it was an accurate count,” Iannone said. “We were really disgruntled. We complained but it didn’t do any good.”
Susan Higley, superintendent of the Sullivan County school district, said enrollment has been consistent. This year, there’s 703 students. Last year, it was 708. In other rural school districts, however, such as Forest County, population losses have been expected. Amanda Hetrick, superintendent of the Forest Area School District, said staffing reductions and shared services agreements have helped offset the population loss. Hetrick said Forest County, like many other rural areas, saw an influx of new people during the pandemic.
“This may change the picture for the future for Forest County,” she wrote in an email.
Pipe said Penn State’s campus emptied out during the pandemic and that was the biggest factor in Centre County’s lackluster gains. Unlike Sullivan, Centre County is pursuing a recount or second look at their numbers, Pipe said.
“For every person that’s counted, that’s worth $10,000 for that course of 10 years,” he said. “That’s money we get as a community.”
When asked to comment about concerns coming out of rural counties, a census spokesperson in Philadelphia referred The Inquirer to bureau literature that said “the census counts the population only once each decade, and there is no mechanism for a recount.”
Governments can look into the Census Count Question Resolution (CQR) program but they must typically pay for the recount and the results may take years. In 1870, a Census recount was conducted in Philadelphia when, according to Penn researchers, a similar lack of population growth was found.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, any census is a “daunting challenge even under the best of circumstances.”
“Despite facing a pandemic, natural disasters and other unforeseen challenges, the 2020 Census results thus far are in line with overall benchmarks,” the D.C. office said in a statement.
It’s too early to tell whether people who bought, rented or spent extended time in rural areas of Pennsylvania during the pandemic will make permanent homes there and change their residency. Iannone said Sullivan County saw its best ever room tax this summer and she believes new, pandemic-era residents will show up in future population counts. Iannone said she sold her house in three days this summer.
“Some sold faster than that,” she said. “I think those people are here to stay.”
Iannone said it wouldn’t be worth the cost for Sullivan County to challenge their population numbers. The county is too small.