The percentage of U.S. population that lives outside metropolitan areas has been declining for generations, even though the raw number of nonmetro residents has continued to increase during that time. But from 2011 to 2012, the actual number of people living in nonmetro counties went down, for the first time since the federal government started keeping records.
For the first time since the federal government started doing annual county population estimates, the size of the “nonmetro” population has declined. (Read John Cromartie’s report on this and other population trends in ERS’s Amber Waves.)
The Economic Research Service of USDA reports that between July 2011 and July 2012, the change in population dipped into slightly negative territory in nonmetro counties. Follow the red line in the chart above. In 2012, it dips slightly below the zero line, denoting a slight population loss.
That means slightly more people died or left these counties than were born or migrated there.
The report qualifies the data carefully. “The rate of population decline for this single year is quite small, and the trend may be short-lived,” according to ERS. “Nonetheless, 2011-12 marks the first year with estimated net migration losses exceeding natural increase in nonmetro areas.” The population estimates are also subject to revision, ERS notes.
Nonmetro counties are generally synonymous with “rural” for many government definitions. Nonmetro are the counties that are not included in a metropolitan statistical area.
The federal government started doing county population estimates in the 1960s, so the decline in nonmetro population is a first, at least for the past five decades.
The population growth in nonmetro counties has been slower than metro growth since the mid-1990s, and the gap has widened in the last few years.
According to the ERS:
“Historically, nonmetro population grew because natural increase (more births than deaths) always offset net migration loss (more people moving out than moving in). But falling birth rates and an aging population have steadily dampened the natural increase in nonmetro population over time. Nonmetro net migration rates, which tend to fluctuate in response to economic conditions, last peaked in 2006 just prior to the housing mortgage crisis before falling dramatically.”