© Jon C. Hancock/AP PhotoA coal truck drives through an railroad tressel near downtown Welch, W.Va., Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011. Coal brought a large population to the McDowell County in the 1940's. Now the population is shrinking and the county suffers from unemployment and poverty.
Welch, West Virginia - Nestled within America's once-thriving coal country, 87-year-old Ed Shepard laments a prosperous era gone by, when shoppers lined the streets and government lent a helping hand. Now, here as in one-fourth of all U.S. counties, West Virginia's graying residents are slowly dying off.
Hit by an aging population and a poor economy, a near-record number of U.S. counties are experiencing more deaths than births in their communities, a phenomenon demographers call "natural decrease."
Years in the making, the problem is spreading amid a prolonged job slump and a push by Republicans in Congress to downsize government and federal spending.
Local businesses in Welch began to shutter after U.S. Steel departed McDowell County, which sits near Interstate 77, once referred to as the "Hillbilly Highway" because it promised a way to jobs in the South. Young adults who manage to attend college - the high-school dropout rate is 28 percent, compared with about 8 percent nationwide - can't wait to leave. For some reason, the fish in nearby Elkhorn Creek left too.
"There's no reason for you to come to Welch," says Shepard, wearing a Union 76 cap at a makeshift auto shop he still runs after six decades. "This is nothing but a damn ghost town in a welfare county