Nearly two-thirds of nonmetropolitan counties lost population from 2010 to 2015. The losses were especially pronounced in so-called "noncore" counties, These are rural counties where all small towns in their market areas are under 10,000 residents. "Micropolitan" counties (nonmetro counties that had a city of 10,000 to fewer than 50,000) gained population as a group. (Daily Yonder/Census and ACS)
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Rural America showed almost no population growth during the first half of this decade. But the little growth that did occur outside the nation’s metropolitan areas came from an increase in foreign-born residents.

Rural counties added 161,000 residents from 2010-15, according to Census population figures. Nearly three-quarters of that growth was the result of people who moved to rural America after being born in foreign countries, according to Census data.

Rural America’s population grew by a scant 0.3 percent during the period and now stands at 46.2 million. Without the increase in foreign-born residents, the rural population growth would have been 0.1 percent, Census estimates show.

Overall population change was dramatically different across various types of rural counties. Population fell in nearly two out of three nonmetropolitan counties. Most of that decrease occurred in the nation’s smallest rural counties. These counties – ones that don’t contain or aren’t near a city of 10,000 residents or more – lost 115,000 residents during the five year period. Rural counties that did have a city of 10,000 or more grew by 276,000 residents.

Nonmetropolitan counties gained an estimated 161,000 residents from 2010-15. Seventy percent of that gain came from additional nonmetropolitan residents who were born outside the United States (Daily Yonder, American Community Survey)

Both large and small rural counties added foreign-born residents over the period. Larger rural counties increased the number of foreign born residents by 76,000, while smaller counties increased by by 36,000.

Large and small counties had dramatically different population changes in native-born residents, however. Small counties lost 151,000 native-born residents, while larger counties gained about 200,000.

“Counties are not losing population randomly,” said Ken Johnson, senior demographer, University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy. “The people who leave rural counties tend to be young adults. So when a county loses those young people, it loses a lot of its potential, too. You’re not just losing those young adults, you’re losing the people who are going to produce the next generation.”

Nationally, the U.S. population grew by 3.1 percent (or 9.5 million) from 2010-2015 to reach 316.5 million. Almost all of that growth occurred in metropolitan counties, with the largest cities accounting for most of the increase. Metropolitan areas of a million or more people grew by 8.7 million people from 2010 to 2015, according to the Census Bureau. That is 70 percent of the total population gain in the country.

Only a quarter of metropolitan counties lost population between 2010 and 2015.

Though foreign-born residents helped increase the population in the largest rural counties, and mitigated loss in smaller counties, they are still a relatively small part of the rural population. About 4 percent of nonmetropolitan residents were born in a foreign country; in the nation’s largest cities, 18.2 percent of the population is foreign born.

The continuing population decline in a majority of rural counties is a concern, says Johnson, the New Hampshire demographer. “When the population base dwindles to a certain point, then it can’t support local stores anymore,” he said. “Everybody has got to go to the big town that is 30 miles away to go to Walmart or to a hospital and things like that. It makes it more and more difficult.”

The Daily Yonder analysis is based primarily on American Community Survey data. The data is based on sampling and has a variable margin of error.

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