Rural America’s Population Declines for the Sixth Straight Year

John Cromartie

An old abandoned farmhouse.

The num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing in rur­al (non­metro) coun­ties stood at 46.1 mil­lion in July 2016 — 14 per­cent of all U.S. res­i­dents spread across 72 per­cent of the Nation’s land area. The rur­al pop­u­la­tion declined by 21,000 between July 2015 and July 2016, accord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau’s lat­est pop­u­la­tion esti­mates, the sixth con­sec­u­tive year of mod­est pop­u­la­tion loss­es. Although many rur­al coun­ties have shown pop­u­la­tion loss­es for decades, this is the first peri­od on record of over­all rur­al pop­u­la­tion decline.

The Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s Eco­nom­ic Research Ser­vice (ERS) researchers and oth­ers who ana­lyze con­di­tions in rur­al” Amer­i­ca most often use data on non­metro areas, defined as coun­ties out­side the com­mut­ing zones of cities of 50,000 or more. Pop­u­la­tion growth rates in rur­al coun­ties have been sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er than in urban (metro) coun­ties since the mid-1990s, and the gap widened con­sid­er­ably in recent years. Between 2006 and 2016, annu­al rates of pop­u­la­tion change in rur­al areas fell from 0.7 per­cent to below zero, while urban rates fell only slight­ly from 1 to 0.8 percent.

To down­load a high­er res­o­lu­tion ver­sion of this chart, click here. (Source: USDA ERS)

Pop­u­la­tion growth from nat­ur­al change no longer off­set­ting net migra­tion loss

Coun­ty pop­u­la­tion change includes two major com­po­nents: nat­ur­al change (births minus deaths) and net migra­tion (in-migrants minus out-migrants). While nat­ur­al change has grad­u­al­ly trend­ed down­ward over time, net migra­tion rates tend to fluc­tu­ate in response to eco­nom­ic con­di­tions. Since 2010, the increase in rur­al pop­u­la­tion from nat­ur­al change (270,000 more births than deaths) has not matched the decrease in pop­u­la­tion from net migra­tion (462,000 more peo­ple moved out than moved in). Net migra­tion rates were often much low­er in the past — dur­ing the 1950s, 1960s, and 1980s — but were always off­set by high­er rates of nat­ur­al change.

To down­load a high­er res­o­lu­tion ver­sion of this chart, click here. (Source: USDA ERS)

More deaths than births now occur­ring in hun­dreds of rur­al counties

Pop­u­la­tion growth from nat­ur­al change (more births than deaths, also known as nat­ur­al increase) was the norm his­tor­i­cal­ly. But declin­ing birth rates, increas­ing mor­tal­i­ty rates among work­ing-age adults, and an aging pop­u­la­tion have led to the emer­gence of nat­ur­al decrease (more deaths than births) in hun­dreds of U.S. coun­ties, most of them rur­al coun­ties. Low­er rates of nat­ur­al change result­ed in 325 rur­al coun­ties expe­ri­enc­ing sus­tained nat­ur­al decrease for the first time dur­ing 2010 – 16, adding to 645 rur­al coun­ties with nat­ur­al decrease dur­ing 2000-09.

Areas that recent­ly began expe­ri­enc­ing nat­ur­al decrease are found in New Eng­land, north­ern Michi­gan, and high-pover­ty areas in the south­ern Coastal Plains. Such coun­ties also are found in and around the mar­gins of Appalachia, expand­ing a large region of nat­ur­al decrease extend­ing from Maine through north­ern Alabama.

To down­load a high­er res­o­lu­tion ver­sion of this map, click here. (Source: USDA ERS)

Shift­ing geog­ra­phy of pop­u­la­tion change

Oppor­tu­ni­ties for pop­u­la­tion growth and eco­nom­ic expan­sion vary wide­ly from one rur­al coun­ty to the next. A com­par­i­son of maps for two time peri­ods (200208 and 2010 – 16) shows that new region­al pat­terns of growth and decline have emerged in recent years.

The first map shows geo­graph­ic pat­terns of pop­u­la­tion growth that held sway for decades. Pop­u­la­tion loss affect­ed most rur­al coun­ties depen­dent on agri­cul­ture, in the Great Plains from east­ern Mon­tana to west Texas, extend­ing into Corn Belt areas of Iowa, Illi­nois, and oth­er Mid­west­ern States. Pop­u­la­tion loss also affect­ed areas of rel­a­tive­ly high pover­ty in the south­ern Coastal Plains from east­ern Texas to Vir­ginia, and in Appalachia from east­ern Ken­tucky through upstate New York.

Rapid pop­u­la­tion gains in rur­al coun­ties near large and medi­um-sized metro areas reflect­ed long-term sub­ur­ban­iza­tion trends that trans­formed hun­dreds of rur­al areas and small towns. Rapid growth was also con­cen­trat­ed in recre­ation areas with attrac­tive scenery and retire­ment des­ti­na­tions, such as through­out the Rocky Moun­tains and Pacif­ic Coast regions, in the Ozarks and south­ern Appalachia, and in Florida.

To down­load a high­er res­o­lu­tion ver­sion of this map, click here. (Source: USDA ERS)

The sec­ond map shows declin­ing pop­u­la­tion trends and geo­graph­ic shifts since 2010. In 2010 – 16, rur­al pop­u­la­tion decline occurred in 18 out of 23 east­ern States that had been grow­ing dur­ing 2002-08. Pop­u­la­tion growth also slowed con­sid­er­ably in the Moun­tain West for the first time in decades, affect­ing numer­ous coun­ties in Utah, Ida­ho, Neva­da, and else­where. Over­all, only 138 rur­al coun­ties grew by 5 per­cent or more since 2010, com­pared with 429 coun­ties pri­or to the Great Recession.

Spurred by an ener­gy boom, large sec­tions of the Great Plains turned around decades of pop­u­la­tion decline. This is most vis­i­ble in sparse­ly set­tled regions such as the Willis­ton Basin in west­ern North Dako­ta and east­ern Mon­tana. How­ev­er, the most recent year of data (201516) shows a sig­nif­i­cant rever­sal in pop­u­la­tion growth in these ener­gy-sec­tor regions, in line with recent cut­backs in oil production.

To down­load a high­er res­o­lu­tion ver­sion of this map, click here. (Source: USDA ERS)

This first-ever peri­od of over­all rur­al pop­u­la­tion loss may be short-lived depend­ing on the course of the eco­nom­ic recov­ery. The cycli­cal down­turn in net migra­tion that began in 2007 bot­tomed out in 2012, and improv­ing pop­u­la­tion trends since 2012 coin­cide with a marked improve­ment in rur­al employ­ment growth. Even if tem­po­rary, this small but his­toric shift to over­all pop­u­la­tion loss high­lights a grow­ing demo­graph­ic chal­lenge fac­ing many regions across rur­al and small-town Amer­i­ca: pop­u­la­tion growth from nat­ur­al increase is no longer large enough to counter cycli­cal net migra­tion losses.

(“Rur­al Areas Show Over­all Pop­u­la­tion Decline and Shift­ing Region­al Pat­terns of Pop­u­la­tion Changewas orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on Amber Waves—a month­ly USDA online mag­a­zine that show­cas­es the full range of ERS research and analy­sis on eco­nom­ic and pol­i­cy issues relat­ed to agri­cul­ture, food, the envi­ron­ment, and rur­al Amer­i­ca. See Also: What is Rur­al?

John Cro­mar­tie is a geo­g­ra­ph­er with the USDA’s Resource and Rur­al Eco­nom­ics Divi­sion. He con­ducts research on rur­al pop­u­la­tion change, rur­al hous­ing, and rur­al-urban clas­si­fi­ca­tions and recent­ly com­plet­ed a col­lab­o­ra­tive, field-based study of return migra­tion to rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. Cro­mar­tie holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Geog­ra­phy, and a B.A. in His­to­ry, from the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na at Chapel Hill.
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