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Migration patterns – rather than birth or death rates – are driving the historic population loss that has occurred in nonmetropolitan counties over the past three years, according to analysis from the USDA Economic Research Service.

That means the three year population loss trend may be because of the economic downturn, rather than a long term structural change in nonmetro population patterns.

The story is in the ERS chart above.

The black line shows the total rate of population change in nonmetro counties since 1976. The black population change line has a pretty robust cycle to it, rising and falling in three distinct patterns over the last 35 years.

At the extreme right of the chart, the black line dips below zero. That’s when nonmetro counties started losing population – in 2011.

Notice how the green line – “net migration” – parallels the rise and fall of the black line precisely. The green line measures the population change that results from people moving in and out of nonmetropolitan counties.

The red line – “natural increase” – is on a path of its own. It’s declining slowly over time with no rapid changes. This line shows the population change that is the result of births and deaths, as opposed to migration.

“While natural change [the red line] has gradually trended downward over time, net migration rates [green line] tend to fluctuate in response to economic conditions,” the ERS reports. “Thus, this period of rural population loss may be short lived depending on the course of the economic recovery.”

The implication is that when times are good, folks move to rural areas. And when the economy hits the skids, as it has since 2007, more people leave nonmetro counties than arrive. When the economy changes, perhaps the migration pattern will, too.

The question, of course, is when and how the nonmetro economy will recover. The Daily Yonder’s analysis of employment numbers shows that nonmetro counties still had fewer jobs at the end of 2013 than they did in 2007. That job loss was concentrated in smaller nonmetro counties – ones that did not have a city with more than 10,000 resid