Editor’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?


The number of people living in nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) counties now stands at 46.2 million– 15 percent of U.S. residents spread across 72 percent of the land area of the United States. … Between April 2010 and July 2012, nonmetro counties declined in total population by 44,000 people, a -0.09-percent drop according to the most recent release of annual county population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. County population change includes two major components: natural change (births minus deaths, also available separately) and net migration (inmigrants minus outmigrants). Nonmetro population loss during 2010-12 reflects natural increase of 135,000 offset by net outmigration of -179,000.

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.

Long-term population growth from steadily booming recreation, tourism, and retirement economies has also been interrupted in nonmetro counties. During the 1990s and early 2000s, rapid inmigration to nonmetro regions with mountains, lakes, moderate climates, and other natural amenities generated jobs in construction and the service sector, which attracted additional migrants. Population growth in nonmetro counties with recreation-based employment has dropped to only 0.5 percent since 2010. While this may be a large drop in population growth, recreation counties are still growing faster than most other nonmetro counties. For example, manufacturing-dependent counties switched from population growth in 2004-06 to population decline in 2010-12. The extent to which these economic sectors recover will strongly influence the overall rates and geography of nonmetro population change in the coming years.

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