Rural America’s Population is Shrinking for the First Time Ever

Rural America In These Times

From 2010 to 2016, rural areas declined by nearly 200,000 people but the loss was not evenly distributed.

Rur­al Amer­i­ca at a Glance, 2017 Edi­tion—the U.S. Depart­ment of Agriculture’s annu­al report on rur­al eco­nom­ic and pop­u­la­tion trends in the nation’s non­metro” areas — didn’t include too many sur­pris­es, but did find wide region­al vari­a­tion. It also con­firmed (as we’ve report­ed) that rur­al Amer­i­ca’s over­all pop­u­la­tion is in fact shrink­ing for the first time on record.

Key find­ings on the eco­nom­ic front:

  • Rur­al employ­ment has not returned to its pre-reces­sion level.
  • Job growth since 2011 remains well below the urban growth rate.
  • Medi­an incomes remain below those of urban areas.
  • Rur­al pover­ty rates are high­er — espe­cial­ly in the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta, Appalachia and the Rio Grande Valley.
  • Infra­struc­ture invest­ments, like expand­ing broad­band inter­net access, could improve eco­nom­ic per­for­mance and con­tribute to qual­i­ty of life through more robust deliv­ery of edu­ca­tion, health­care, pub­lic safe­ty and oth­er services.

Accord­ing to the report, rur­al coun­ties with economies based on tourism and recre­ation main­tained high­er-than-aver­age pop­u­la­tion growth rates dur­ing 2010 – 16. How­ev­er, over that same five year peri­od, 1,351 rur­al coun­ties lost pop­u­la­tion — total­ing close to 800,000 peo­ple. In addi­tion to an aging pop­u­la­tion, fac­tors behind this decline include:

  • Long-term out­mi­gra­tion of young adults
  • Few­er births
  • Increased mor­tal­i­ty among work­ing-age adults
  • Also, reclas­si­fi­ca­tion of fast-grow­ing coun­ties from rur­al to urban (non­metro to metro) due to urban­iza­tion gen­er­al­ly means the remain­ing rur­al coun­ties have low­er pop­u­la­tion growth potential.

You can find a link to the full report (and a webi­nar pre­sen­ta­tion of its find­ings) below, but first here’s a clos­er look at the numbers.

Over­all rur­al pop­u­la­tion loss masks region­al variation

The num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing in rur­al (non­metro) coun­ties declined by near­ly 200,000 between 2010 and 2016, the first record­ed peri­od of rur­al pop­u­la­tion decline. Pop­u­la­tion loss for rur­al Amer­i­ca as a whole has aver­aged just ‑0.07 per­cent per year in that span, but this loss has not been even­ly dis­trib­uted across all rur­al counties.

The num­ber of non­metro coun­ties los­ing pop­u­la­tion reached an his­toric high of 1,351 dur­ing 2010 – 16, with a com­bined pop­u­la­tion loss of just under 790,000. Long-term pop­u­la­tion loss con­tin­ued in coun­ties depen­dent on agri­cul­ture, in the Great Plains, Mid­west and south­ern Coastal Plains. New areas of pop­u­la­tion loss emerged through­out the east­ern Unit­ed States, espe­cial­ly in man­u­fac­tur­ing-depen­dent regions.

The 487 rur­al coun­ties with pos­i­tive but below-aver­age growth (less than the U.S. pop­u­la­tion growth rate of 5 per­cent) togeth­er added 281,000 peo­ple over 2010 – 16. Many are locat­ed in rur­al parts of the Moun­tain West, south­ern Appalachia, and oth­er scenic areas where pop­u­la­tion growth slowed con­sid­er­ably for the first time in decades. Coun­ties iden­ti­fied by ERS as hav­ing recre­ation-based economies grew by 4.6 per­cent dur­ing 2002-08 but only by 1.2 per­cent dur­ing 2010 – 16.

Most non­metro pop­u­la­tion growth was con­cen­trat­ed in just 138 coun­ties that grew by 5 per­cent or more dur­ing 2010 – 16, adding 317,000 peo­ple. Work­ers attract­ed to the oil and gas boom caused rapid growth in the north­ern Great Plains, west­ern Texas/​southeastern New Mex­i­co, and south Texas. How­ev­er, pro­duc­tion cut­backs slowed pop­u­la­tion growth in these regions dur­ing 2015 – 16.

Most oth­er high-growth coun­ties dur­ing 2010 – 16 were coun­ties in scenic areas that main­tained high­er-than-aver­age growth despite the over­all pop­u­la­tion slow­down in these types of areas. This first-ever peri­od of over­all non­metro pop­u­la­tion loss may be short-lived. The cycli­cal eco­nom­ic down­turn that began in 2007 bot­tomed out in 2012, and increas­ing pop­u­la­tion growth since 2012 coin­cides with renewed non­metro employ­ment growth. The lat­est pop­u­la­tion esti­mates show signs of a pop­u­la­tion recov­ery in many parts of rur­al Amer­i­ca in 2015 – 16, espe­cial­ly in tourism and recre­ation destinations.

The uploader mis­pelled edi­tion” in the title, but there’s some good data in here pre­sent­ed by John Cro­mar­tie, an author of the report. (Video: USDA / YouTube)

To check out Rur­al Amer­i­ca at a Glance, 2017 Edi­tion in its entire­ty, click here.

This blog’s mis­sion is to pro­vide the pub­lic ser­vice of help­ing make the issues that rur­al Amer­i­ca is grap­pling with part of nation­al discourse.
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