Rural Population Drops for Fifth Straight Year, But Other Patterns Are Changing

The Great Recession continues to reverberate in rural America and is the most likely cause of the slight decline in population from 2015 to 2016. But in other ways, rural counties appear to be headed back to “normal” population gains. All in all, it’s another wait-and-see year for rural population trends.

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The size of the rural population fell again last year, according to Census Bureau estimates.

This is the fifth consecutive year nonmetropolitan counties have lost population. That’s a new record. (The old one was set in 2015.)

The question this year is whether 2016 marks a turning point in rural population decline. If that question sounds familiar, it’s because we also asked it in 2015. And 2014.

Click on the map for an interactive version.

Since 2011, the consistent analysis we’ve heard about rural population loss, pretty much every year, is this:

“Hmmmm, that doesn’t look so great for rural counties to be losing population again this year. But the change is small and it’s hard to tell too much from just one year’s worth of data. Maybe we’ll know more next year.”

So, here it is next year one more time, and maybe we know a little more. Or not.

On one hand, the rural population decreased again. It’s a problematic trend, because it usually means fewer people working, fewer kids in school, fewer people shopping and doing the other things that contribute to the local economy.

But, on the other hand, the decline was the smallest since the trend started – a net loss of only 21,000 residents or 0.05%. The net change is so small that it could be reversed by adjustments in the estimates that occur in future years.

Another finding that may indicate rural America could head back into positive population change soon is that rural counties that are closer to cities actually grew slightly from 2015-2016. For the past 40 or 50 years, it’s been normal for rural counties adjacent to metro areas to grow more quickly than counties located farther from cities, said Kenneth M. Johnson, chief demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. But until the most recent estimates came out, the opposite has been true following the Great Recession

“To me, that’s the biggest news about rural America” coming from the new population estimates, Johnson said. “[It’s] still losing people, but it’s increasingly because of what’s going on in the remote rural counties.”

The two charts show this trend. The first shows the population change in nonmetropolitan counties that are adjacent to, and not adjacent to, metro areas. From 2004-2009, adjacent counties (the blue line) grew faster than nonadjacent counties (the red line).

The second graph shows the same data from 2012-2016, well after the official end of the Great Recession. Nonadjacent counties performed better (in this case, losing less population) than adjacent counties. But the rates flipped this year, with adjacent counties adding population while nonadjacent counties continued to lose population.

Historically, rural counties that are closer to cities (blue line) grow at a faster rate than more remote counties (red line). That’s the pattern from 2004 to 2008 (left graph). The trend was reversed after the Great Recession (right chart) until this year, when counties adjacent to metro areas grew faster than rural counties that are not adjacent to metro areas. The change could signal a return to population patterns that are more consistent with historical trends. (Daily Yonder graphic using U.S. Census Bureau 2016 Population Estimates)

The question is whether the pattern will continue.

“If it’s reemerging, that could mean the larger population trend of modest growth from rural counties will return as well,” Johnson said.

The map shows the change in population at the county level from 2015 to 2016, according to Census estimates. First, click on counties in the embedded map to see how their population changed from 2015 to 2016. Orange are metro counties with a population loss, blue is metro that gained population. Red are rural counties with a population loss, green is rural that gained.

Large metros (blue line, 1 million and up residents) grew at the fastest rate in recent years, although medium sized metros (red line) are increasing their rate of growth. Small metros (green line, under 250,000 resident) have grown at a more consistent rate in recent years. (Daily Yonder using Census Bureau Population Estimates)

About two-thirds of metropolitan counties gained population from 2015 to 2016, while about a third of nonmetropolitan counties did.

The final chart looks at population change rates in metropolitan counties only, using the USDA Economic Research Service’s Rural Urban Continuum Codes. This chart shows that counties in urban areas with a population of 1 million and up (blue line) had the highest growth rates. Counties in metro areas of 250,000 to 1 million people have seen their rate of growth increase each year since 2012.

Smaller areas (counties in metro areas of less than 250,000 residents) have had a flat growth rate of about 0.5 for the past four years.

Another trend this is reminiscent of pre-recession days, Johnson said, is that counties that rely on recreation and retirement populations for a big part of their economies started to grow again last year. Those types of counties “have traditionally been among the fastest growing of the rural counties,” Johnson said. “Their growth is starting to pick up again, too. Again, this is sort of the way things looked before the recession.”

 

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