Smallest Counties Lose Population — Again

The nation’s most rural counties lost population as a group in the latest population estimates – for the fourth straight year. While metropolitan areas and counties with small cities have gained about 1% this decade, “noncore” counties – with no cities of 10,000 residents and up – have dropped by half a percent.

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For the fourth year in a row, rural America has lost population, according to new U.S. Census data.

As in previous years, the population loss was concentrated in the nation’s smallest rural counties. These "noncore" counties don't have a city larger than 9,999 residents. 

A chart from the USDA Economic Research Service (below) shows the trend. Note that the chart is the rate of population change, not overall population.

Nonmetropolitan population is traced in the red line. It falls into the negative territory below the horizontal line beginning in 2011. That’s when nonmetropolitan counties started seeing a net loss in population.

What the chart doesn’t show is that the rural population loss is focused in small, noncore counties. Even there, the population loss is small in percentage terms – about half a percent since 2010, from 19.13 million in 2010 to an estimated 19.03 million in 2014.

But the fourth straight year of loss begins to solidify the argument that we are seeing a long-term population change, not just a temporary blip.

Nonmetropolitan counties with small cities (mircopolitan counties with cities ranging in population from 10,000 to less than 50,000) gained about 1% in population from 2010 to 2014. That’s roughly on par metropolitan counties over the same period.

The Economic Research Service reports that the rural population decline was the result fewer births coupled with outmigration. In other words, not enough babies were born in rural America to make up for the number of people who left or died. The service predicts that this trend is likely to continue because of “historically low fertility rates and an aging population.” 

 

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