The size of the Letcher County immigrant population declined in the past decade, unlike most other counties in the United States.
The findings could be important locally because a new study indicates that rural counties with a higher percentage of immigrants are doing better economically.
From 2000 to 2012, the number of Letcher County residents who were born outside the United States fell by 31 people to an estimated 61, according to census data. During the same period, the percentage of county residents who were foreign born fell from 0.4 to 0.3 percent.
The Daily Yonder, an online publication that covers rural news, looked at the nation’s 1,966 nonmetropolitan counties, including Letcher County. Nonmetropolitan, or rural, counties have no cities of 50,000 or more residents and don’t have strong economic ties to a county that does.
The study found that counties with a higher percentage of their population born in foreign countries generally had a higher per capita market income and more jobs. These same counties also tended to have lower rates of unemployment and poverty than counties with a smaller proportion of immigrants.
In Letcher County, the economic results declined throughout the period of the study.
Total employment fell by 9.9 percent to an estimated 7,071 full and parttime jobs.
Unemployment grew by 5.8 percentage points to 13.8 percent.
And the percentage of people living below the federal poverty line grew from 22.7 in 2000 to an estimated 25.2 in 2012.
The county’s overall 2012 population estimate was 24,300, a decrease of 3.7 percent since 2000.
The connection between more immigrants and better economic performance did not surprise James H. Johnson Jr., a University of North Carolina business professor who has researched the economic impact of immigration.
“What people don’t understand is that immigration is a selective process,” he said. Immigrants tend to be younger and healthier than the general population, he said. “They are risk takers by definition. For them, the glass is always half full.”
But the demographic change can be challenging for smaller communities, said Daniel T. Lichter at the Cornell University Population
“Whether communities take advantage of the potential of immigrant communities to improve the local economy depends on local leadership and how well they respond to immigrant populations,” he said.
The study is based on the 2000 U.S. Census and fiveyear American Community Survey data from 2012, the last year available when the study was conducted. The survey data is an estimate and has a margin of error that varies with county size.
More details on the study are available at www.dailyyonder.com/immigration2015.
Tim Marema is editor of the news site DailyYonder.com. Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D., is a Daily Yonder researcher and is an associate extension professor at Mississippi State University. The Daily Yonder is published by the Center for Rural Strategies, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Whitesburg.