Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire

A third of rural counties in the United States have experienced protracted and significant population loss over the last century, according to new research from the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

The counties with prolonged population loss are now home to 6.2 million residents, a third fewer than lived there in 1950, according to the report by Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at Carsey and professor of sociology, and Daniel Lichter, a policy fellow at Carsey.

The study found that about a third of the 1,948 counties defined as rural lost population from 1900 to 2010. Another third gained population. And another third had a mixture of both long-term growth and decline.

Read the full report.

The study spanned 110 years, covering periods of major economic and social change that redefined rural America’s place in the nation’s economy, politics, and culture. Until World War I, a majority of Americans lived in rural areas. Today, about 15% of the U.S. population lives in nonmetropolitan counties (which the study defines as rural).

The dark red areas in the map above show rural counties that have had protracted population loss:

Depopulating rural counties are concentrated in the Great Plains and lie in a north-south band from the Dakotas through Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma to central Texas. Clusters of depopulating rural counties are also evident in the northern Great Lakes, the interior of the Southeast, the Mississippi Delta, and the mining regions of West Virginia and Kentucky.

The one-third of rural counties that experienced population growth over the last century cluster in the West, along the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, or near metropolitan counties.  The study found that so-called “high-amenity” counties that attract retirees, second-home owners, and outdoor enthusiasts also tended to experience population growth. These include “areas of the upper Great Lakes and Northern New England, as well as in the Ozarks and the Great Smoky Mountains.”

But even counties that gained population have struggled in the recent drop in overall rural population. Among the rural counties that were at their population peak in 2010, just 56 percent gained population between 2010 and 2016. “That nearly half of the counties with long histories of population gain are now losing population underscores the demographic and economic headwinds that non-metropolitan America faces,” the report said.

Of the 746 counties that are depopulating, 91 percent are rural.

Outmigration lies at the heart of depopulation.

“Population loss from outmigration is the most important factor in the initial stages of depopulation,” the researchers said.

These depopulating rural counties had an average migration loss of 43 percent of their 20-to-24-year-olds in each decade from 1950 to 2010, and that chronic young adult outmigration means there were far fewer women of child-bearing age and, as a result, many fewer births. In addition, 60 percent of these counties had more deaths than births. This combination of young adult outmigration, fewer births and more deaths produced a downward spiral of population loss that will be difficult to break.

This study provides a demographic window to the future and a sober forecast of continuing rural population decline in many economically depressed regions. Future rural population growth and decline clearly are deeply rooted in evolving patterns of migration, fertility and mortality. It is past time to refocus our attention on the rural people and places left behind.

The research was funded by the Carnegie Corporation and NH Agriculture Experiment Station.

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