‘Rural America at a Glance’: Tough News

The annual snapshot of economic conditions in nonmetro America shows fewer jobs, more poverty and a declining population.

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Folks looking for good news in the 2013 “Rural America at a Glance” report had better pack a lunch – you could be hunting for a while.

The annual report from the Economic Research Service of USDA shows that job growth in nonmetro counties has stalled, poverty has spread and the rural population shrank in real terms for the first time since the federal government started tracking this statistic generations ago.

One bright spot in the economic and demographic report is that rural unemployment is declining. But that’s because there are fewer people looking for work, not because there are more jobs.

Significant regional variation also provides a hint of what might be to come for rural America, as manufacturing jobs decline and energy jobs expand.

 

 
Economic Research Service
Green areas saw job growth. Red areas so no growth or a decline in jobs. Yellow areas are metro. Click the graphic for a larger version.

Jobs decline. After initially rebounding, rural job growth has stagnated, with no appreciable increase in the past two years. From the second quarter of 2012 to the second quarter of 2013, the number of jobs in rural counties shrank by 0.1%. Meanwhile, in metro counties, jobs grew by 1.4%. (See the graph at the top of the page.)

The loss of rural manufacturing jobs in Eastern states contributed to this trend, the report says. Those jobs disappeared because of the “recession, increased global competition and technological changes.”

Though a majority of nonmetro counties have lost jobs (red counties in the map above), 41% of nonmetro counties did see a rise in employment (green counties in the map above). These gains were more common in the Northern Plains and the Southwest. North Dakota, which is part of the national energy boom, for example, saw a rural employment increase of 4.9%.

 

Economic Research Service
Blue and red areas saw population increase. Yellow areas saw population decline. Click the graphic for a larger version.

Population shrinks. The size of the nonmetro population fell by 0.9%, or 44,000 residents, from April 2010 to July 2012. While this is a small drop, the report notes that it is “without precedent” and “highlights a growing demographic challenge facing much of rural and small-town America: population growth from natural change (births minus deaths) is no longer sufficient to counter net migration losses.”

Once again there were important regional variations in this trend, with the Northern Plains and Southwest again bucking the trend. Counties in blue and red in the map above saw population increases. Yellow areas had population loss.

The report also noted that “the housing mortgage crisis slowed suburban development and contributed to an historic shift within metro regions, with outlying metro counties now growing at a slower rate than central counties.”

 

 
Economic Research Service
This map tracks “high-poverty” counties (where 20% or more of the population is in poverty). Green counties hit this high-poverty threshold between 2000 and 2007-2011. Red counties improved enough to fall below this high-poverty threshold during that period. And blue counties were high-poverty throughout the entire period. Click the graphic for a larger version.

Poverty expands. The number of “high-poverty” counties (ones where at least 20% of the population lives in poverty) grew by 30% from 2000 to 2011. There was also an increase in the number of “persistently poor” rural counties. These are counties where the poverty rate has been 20% or more for several Censuses in a row. The 2012 overall nonmetro poverty rate was 17.7%, versus 14.5% in metro counties.

 

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