Migration Drives Population Loss

One more rural population story: The loss of nonmetro population in the last three years has been the result of migration, not births and deaths. That means rural populations could recover – if the economy does.

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Migration patterns – rather than birth or death rates – are driving
the historic population loss that has occurred in nonmetropolitan counties over
the past three years, according to analysis from the USDA Economic Research

That means the three-year population-loss trend may be
because of the economic downturn, rather than a long-term structural change in
nonmetro population patterns.

The story is in the ERS chart above.

The black line shows the total rate of population change in nonmetro counties since 1976.
The black population-change line has a pretty robust cycle to it, rising and
falling in three distinct patterns over the last 35 years.

At the extreme right of the chart, the black line dips below
zero. That’s when nonmetro counties started losing population – in 2011.

Notice how the green line – “net migration” – parallels the rise and fall of the black line precisely. The green line measures the
population change that results from people moving in and out of nonmetropolitan

The red line – “natural increase” – is on a path of its own.
It’s declining slowly over time with no rapid changes. This line shows the
population change that is the result of births and deaths, as opposed to

“While natural change [the red line] has gradually trended
downward over time, net migration rates [green line] tend to fluctuate in
response to economic conditions,” the ERS reports. “Thus, this period of rural
population loss may be short-lived depending on the course of the economic

The implication is that when times are good, folks move to
rural areas. And when the economy hits the skids, as it has since 2007, more
people leave nonmetro counties than arrive. When the economy changes, perhaps
the migration pattern will, too.

The question, of course, is when and how the nonmetro
economy will recover. The Daily Yonder’s analysis
of employment numbers
shows that nonmetro counties still had fewer
jobs at the end of 2013 than they did in 2007. That job loss was concentrated
in smaller nonmetro counties – ones that did not have a city with more than
10,000 residents.


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