Cradles, caskets and maybe a ghost

What we have here is an interesting New York Times feature story about a dead or dying community, one of those rust-belt towns in which -- this is a fact -- the economic realities of this age are giving people less and less to live for. But you know that I am going to ask this: Are economics the whole story, in Weirton, W. Va.? Might there be a religion ghost in here as well?

Well, the Times team certainly noted ways in which the death of the town is affecting religion -- at the level of cradles and caskets. Soon after the lede we read:

... (T)his community in West Virginia’s northern panhandle holds an unwelcome distinction. With just 71 babies born on average for every 100 residents who die, Brooke County, in which Weirton is partly located, has the largest such gap in the nation among counties in metropolitan areas, save for a handful of places that are magnets for retirees. ...

The main reason Brooke County is so far off the national number -- which is 171 births to 100 deaths -- is that it has missed out on one of the dominant demographic trends to emerge from the recent census: the influx of young immigrants into communities across the United States. The median age for Hispanics, by far the largest immigrant group, is just 27, far lower than the median age for whites of 41.

Without immigrants or economic opportunities to keep its younger residents close to home, Brooke County and others like it are showing their age. At St. Paul Catholic Church in Weirton, the Rev. Larry Dorsch has buried 15 people this year and baptized one.

There are plenty more details where that one came from:

Now walkers and wheelchairs are more common than strollers. Sunday school classrooms at the United Methodist Church downtown are ghostly quiet, and Brooke High School has just half the number of students it did when it opened in 1969. Even funerals are drawing smaller crowds. John Greco, 46, a funeral home director in Weirton, said 50 to 60 guests attend funerals today, about half the numbers in the 1990s.

Please hear me note, once again, that it's clear that regional economics are a key factor here, if not the key factor. The immigration issue is certainly a reality that cannot be denied.

But are these the only factors fueling this death dive? What if the Amish moved in? Would birthrates in the region rise? Why?

Thus I, for one, would have liked to have known a bit more on the religious AND racial make-up of the county. A few words from veteran religious leaders might have helped.

Well ask the religion question in this story? There is this reality that we have discussed before here at GetReligion. This quote is from a Weekly Standard essay on the declining birthrates among secular Americans, while the birthrates among the most religious have remained high. The key numbers are from Gallup:

The best indicator of actual fertility is “aspirational fertility” -- the number of children men and women say they would like to have. Gallup has been asking Americans about their “ideal family size” since 1936. ... But on this question there are two Americas today: a secular population that wants small families (or no family at all) and a religious population that wants larger families.

Religious affiliation is part of the story, but the real difference comes with church attendance. Among people who seldom or never go to church, 66 percent say that zero, one, or two children is the ideal family size, and only 25 percent view three-or-more children as ideal. Among those who go to church monthly, the three-or-more number edges up to 29 percent. But among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal, while only 47 percent think that a smaller family is preferable. When you meet couples with more than three children today, chances are they’re making a cultural and theological statement.

Is religion a major factor in this corner of West Virginia? I do not know. Maybe not.

Is it an irrelevant factor in this birthrate collapse? I do not know. To know the answer to that question, one would need to ask it.

PHOTO: From the logical source.

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