Executive Summary:

As in Europe and part of Asia, rural parts of the United States are witnessing increasing population decline in several locations, a new report by the Washington Post this week highlights one community’s situation. The Centre for Rural Pennsylvania also is featured in this report.

This report examines the ongoing demographic and economic challenges facing rural communities, using the town of Sheffield in northwestern Pennsylvania as a representative case study. Drawing from data originally reported by The Washington Post, our analysis highlights the accelerating population decline in rural areas and its wide-ranging impacts on community infrastructure, services, and social cohesion.

Recent local television report: 

Key Findings:

  1. Demographic Trends:
  • 81% of rural U.S. counties experienced more deaths than births between 2019 and 2023.
  • Pennsylvania is projected to lose 6% of its rural population by 2050, with some counties facing double-digit declines.
  • Sheffield Township’s population has decreased by 23% over the past 20 years.
  1. Economic Impacts:
  • Loss of key businesses and services, including banks, retail stores, and childcare facilities.
  • Significant reduction in major employers, with the largest local company now employing only 25 people.
  • Challenges in attracting new industries and investment.
  1. Educational Challenges:
  • Sharp decline in school enrollment, with Sheffield Area Middle-Senior High School seeing a 63% reduction since 1980.
  • Potential closure of local high school due to low enrollment and teacher shortages.
  1. Public Services and Safety:
  • Discontinuation of local ambulance service due to lack of volunteers.
  • Increased response times for emergency services.
  • Struggle to maintain volunteer fire departments, with Pennsylvania’s volunteer firefighter numbers dropping from 300,000 in the 1970s to an estimated 38,000 in 2018.
  1. Governance and Community Engagement:
  • Difficulties in filling local government positions and finding volunteers for community events.
  • Cancellation of long-standing community traditions due to lack of support.


  1. “We already lost our bank,” Goldthwaite said as he took a break from trimming the grass around headstones. “We lost our liquor store, and we may be about to lose our high school.”
  2. “It’s kind of like building blocks. You pull one block and the wall gets weaker,” said state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski (D), a lawmaker driving the conversation on solutions to population loss. “You pull another block out, and it collapses and that is kind of where our rural communities are.”
  3. “I wish I had an idea to say, ‘If you do this,’ this place can be turned around,” said Jack Cashmere, 86, a lifelong Sheffield resident. “But I guess you just have too many old people like myself.”
  4. “Once you close the school, your town dies,” Sturdevant, 80, said.
  5. “I think [Sheffield] is slowly dying,” Mitchell said. “But I like to be positive and think there is still some hope.”

Analysis: The case of Sheffield exemplifies the challenges facing many rural communities globally. The cycle of population loss, economic decline, and reduction in services creates a self-reinforcing pattern that is difficult to break. This trend has significant implications for national economies, food security, and cultural heritage preservation.

Conclusion: The decline of rural communities like Sheffield represents a critical challenge for policymakers and economists. Without intervention, many such towns may face extinction, potentially destabilizing food production systems and altering the cultural landscape of nations. Further research and policy experimentation are needed to develop effective strategies for rural revitalization.

Note: This report is based on information from a Washington Post article and may require additional verification and updated data for a comprehensive analysis.