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itor’s Note: We’ve reported on the recent decline in nonmetro population and published a county by county map showing exactly where these changes occurred. In this article excerpted from Amber Waves, the journal of the USDA’s Economic Research Service, John Cromartie looks at the underlying patterns of this population trend.

He finds patterns related to both geography and economy. The farther a county is from an urban area, the more likely it is to be losing population or growing at a slower rate than before the recession. He also found that agricultural and manufacturing counties are losing ground, and the big gains that counties with recreational amenities made before 2006 have dropped dramatically.

The question now: Are these temporary changes that will change with an improving economy, or are they permanent?


Geography of Population Change Is Shifting

Opportunities for population growth and economic expansion vary widely from one nonmetro county to another, and new regional patterns of growth and decline have emerged in recent years. Spurred by an energy boom, large sections of the Northern Great Plains turned around decades of population decline. At the same time, nonmetro population growth switched to decline in 21 Eastern States between 2004 06 and 2010 12. For example, most metro counties in Florida maintained above average population growth through the recent housing crisis and recession, but nonmetro areas went from 3 percent growth during 2004 06 to a 0.44 percent decline in the past 2 years.

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 two 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 housing mortgage crisis slowed suburban development and contributed to an historic shift within metro regions, with outlying counties now growing at a slower rate than central counties. Similarly, nonmetro counties adjacent to metro areas grew rapidly from exurban development for decades, with many hundreds of counties growing large enough to be reclassified as metropolitan. These types of counties declined in population for the first time as a group during 2010 12. The rate of decline was marginal (6,100 fewer people), but the drop from 2004 06 when a half million people were added was considerably more significant than the drop in counties not adjacent to metro areas. This period may simply be an interruption in suburbanization or it could turn out to be the end of a major demographic regime that has transformed small towns and rural areas throughout the country.

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