In the 1970s, demographers called it the “rural rebound." Rural America had been losing population for most of the century. And then in the 1970s, those trends reversed. It was a “dramatic and surprising shift," according to demographer Ken Johnson. More than 80 percent of the country’s rural counties gained population. Rural counties were gaining population faster than the cities, as people abandoned urban regions for the countryside.
The South has benefited more than most regions from the rural rebound. (The Great Plains never rebounded, for example; rural counties there have lost population throughout.) And in the 1990s, a large proportion of the South’s rural counties continued to gain population. Nationally, 71 percent of the nation’s rural counties gained population in the “˜90s, according to Johnson. In the South, it was closer to nine out of ten. You can see what happened in the '90s in this map (above): Green shows population growth above the national average; brown indicates a population loss from 1990 to 2000.
This century hasn’t been as kind to the rural South.
The Yonder presents here some remarkable maps and graphs prepared by the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University. They show that nearly half the rural counties of the South — the rural fields of the vaunted Sunbelt — lost population in the first half of this decade.
Compare the map of population loss at the top of this page, showing change from 1990 to 2000 to what happened between 2000 and 2006, below. Look at the increase of reddish-brown counties, those that lost population. Huge portions of the rural South are simply being abandoned. Meanwhile growth is relegated to a select group of city-regions — Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, DC, Austin/San Antonio, Nashville, Raleigh-Durham:
Dramatic, we’d say. So, in the 1990s, only 14 percent of the counties in the South lost population, as you can see in this next graphic.
In the first six years of this century, however, over 30 percent of southern counties lost population — and in the most rural counties, the rate topped 48 percent. (See pie chart below.)
A few days ago, the Yonder asked if migration was an important factor in economic well-being. In surveys and discussions, SRDC found that economic development practitioners in the South thought migration had relatively little to do with economic well-being of rural counties. Yet, in cities, in-migration, particularly of young, educated workers, is considered the most important feature of a vibrant economy.
The dramatic shift in population away from the rural South over the past several years might cause those in the rural development business to reconsider their judgment. In fact, it ought to cause a wholesale reconsideration of economic development strategies throughout the country. There is a growing regional inequality in the country. Some places are growing richer as they collect college graduates and people with skills. Others are falling behind as they fill with those with less schooling and fewer skills.
And that inequality is being driven by migration.