Cots and cribs are arranged at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy, Utah, as an alternate care site or for hospital overflow amid the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a government report released on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, the U.S. birth rate fell 4% in 2020, the largest single-year decrease in nearly 50 years. The rate dropped for moms of every major race and ethnicity, and in nearly every age group, falling to the lowest point since federal health officials started tracking it more than a century ago. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Although the U.S. saw its lowest birth rate in 50 years in 2020, that may not necessarily mean a dramatic decline in rural populations.

According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 3.6 million babies were born last year in the U.S., Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas, the study said, a decline of four percent over 2019. It’s the sixth year in a row that birth rates have declined.

That puts the U.S. total fertility rate, an estimate of how many babies a group of 1,000 women would have during their lifetime, at “below replacement” levels. 

“The rate has generally been below replacement since 1971 and has consistently been below replacement since 2007,” according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the CDC.

Janna E. Johnson, an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said that while some rural areas may see falling birth rates, other factors, like migration, may change the face of the rural landscape.

Populations grow through births and decline through deaths, she said. But they also grow through migration.

“It may well be true in some states that births are outnumbering deaths, but still in the U.S., the biggest driver of state population change, I would say, would be migration,” Johnson said.

According to Realtor.com’s Market Hotness rankings for May 2020, only 87 urban ZIP codes saw improvement in their rankings, and only 404 suburban ZIP codes improved. But nearly 850 rural ZIP codes saw improvement.

“Particularly with the rise of remote work that was accelerated by the pandemic, what that means for some people, migrating out of urban areas and into rural areas, remains to be seen,” Johnson said.

The trend could be temporary, she said, or people could opt to return to urban and suburban areas.

“We don’t know yet if those moves are permanent,” she said. “We need to wait and see what happens once the pandemic is truly over. Will people need to return to the office? Or is remote work here to stay? That, I think, is yet-to-be-determined.”

Data on migration from urban areas to rural areas won’t be known for another year or more, she said.

One trend researchers have been seeing for a while is a reversal of the Great Migration. In the Great Migration, more than 6 million African Americans moved from the rural South into urban areas like Chicago, New York and Detroit between 1916 and 1970. Now, Johnson said, what researchers like her are seeing is a migration of African Americans from Northern cities back to the South.

While the majority of that migration seems to be headed to cities, it appears initially, she said, that the population is shifting to the South and Southwest. It will be some time, she said, whether or not researchers will see whether or not this new migration impacts rural populations.

“Trying to get a picture of what the rural communities are going to look like in 10 years, 15 years, or 20 years when the policies that are being enacted now start taking effect is an interesting question to ponder,” she said.

While the study did not look at rural versus urban birth rates, Johnson said, studies from 2017 suggest the birthrate in urban areas are falling faster than those in rural areas.

“Birth rates have been falling in all areas of the country – rural, urban and suburban, but they have been falling a little bit faster in urban areas,” she said. “The main driver of this has a lot to do with the age of women have their first child. That is, on average, a lot younger in rural areas than in urban areas.”

Johnson said the total fertility rate in urban areas is 1,600 births per 1,000 women, whereas the total fertility rate in rural areas is 1,900 births per 1,000 women – much closer to the population replacement rate of 2,100.

Another factor complicating the rise and fall of rural areas is their tendency to have more older people in them. As those rural residents die off, the rural population will decline, she said.

“Even though women in rural areas have more children per woman than urban areas, there are a lot fewer women of childbearing age to have those babies in rural areas relative to urban areas,” she said. “So even though women are having more babies in rural areas there are fewer of them and so they’re not necessarily making up for the deaths in the older population.”