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The population growth in rural counties that depend on tourists and retirees isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still a bright spot compared to other rural population trends, a new analysis by the USDA Economic Research Service shows.

As the Daily Yonder has reported, nonmetropolitan counties overall have lost population for the fourth straight year. But some types of rural counties managed to add population rather than lose it. We’ve already reported on how larger rural counties – ones that have cities of between 10,000 and 50,000 residents – grew in population last year.

The new ERS analysis by John Cromartie looks at other geographic factors in rural population change from 2010 to 2014. He finds that factors that used to contribute to population growth for rural counties aren’t as strong as they used to be.

Urban population size, metro proximity, attractive scenery, and recreation potential have historically contributed to nonmetro population growth. For the time being at least, their influence has weakened. Over the last 4 years, suburban and exurban population growth has contracted considerably—for the first time since World War II—affecting not only outlying metro counties but nonmetro counties adjacent to metro areas as well.

The analysis looks at nonmetropolitan population change by “county type”:

  • “Recreation” counties have lots of exceptional natural amenities like lakes, mountains, and rivers (think Park County, Wyoming, the home of Yellowstone National Park, or of counties along the Upper Great Lakes in parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota).
  • “Farming” counties are like they sound – counties where agriculture is the dominant economic force.
  • “Manufacturing” counties, where factories still make up a good portion of the economic activity.
  • And “Other” counties, which don’t match one of the other categories.

The analysis found that recreation counties were the only type of rural county to show any appreciable growth in 2010 2014.

In recreation counties, the population grew by 1.4 percent. That’s still pretty anemic compared to population growth from 2003 to 2007, before the Great Recession. But at least it’s in positive territory, unlike farming and manufacturing counties.

Before the recession, the population in recreation counties climbed by nearly 5.1 percent, the ERS analysis says. That growth rate was even higher than the growth rate for metropolitan counties overall.

Population loss in manufacturing counties was caused by the recession, global competition, and changes in technology, the analysis says.

Farming counties, focused in the Great Plains and Corn Belt, lost population overall despite growth in some of those counties from energy production.

Both these types of counties have an aging population, Cromartie reports, which results in lower birth rates and higher death rates. A previous Yonder story looks at that trend.