The Daily Yonder's coverage of rural economic issues, including workforce development and the future of work in rural America, is supported in part by Microsoft.
UPDATE: The map has been updated to correct errors in how “micropolitan” counties were coded.
The overall rural population may be bouncing back a bit, but the real growth in nonmetropolitan areas is occurring in counties that have small cities, not in the nation’s least densely populated areas.
New estimates from the U.S. Census show that after a modest four-year decline, the population in nonmetropolitan counties remained stable from 2014 to 2015 at about 46 million.
Daily Yonder calculations of Census data show that so-called micropolitan counties (nonmetro counties that have a city from 10,000 to less than 50,000 residents) gained an estimated 27,000 residents from 2014 to 2015. Meanwhile the nation’s most rural counties (those that are not part of a metropolitan area and have cities of less than 10,000 residents) lost about 31,000 residents.
The net population loss for nonmetropolitan counties (both micropolitan and rural) was about 4,000 nationally over the last year – virtually even. The nonmetro population fell by about 25,000 from 2013-14 and by about 50,000 each year from 2011 to 2013. While the percent changes from year to year were small, the pattern raised concerns about how long the trend might continue.
“The 2014-15 improvement in rural population change coincides with an improvement in rural employment growth and suggests that this first-ever period of overall population decline (from 2010 to 2015) may be ending,” the USDA Economic Research Service reported in its population analysis. But the report says rural counties will have difficulty creating population growth in the future because rural areas tend to have more deaths than births and less in-migration.
The map shows nonmetropolitan estimated population change from 2010 to 2015. Red counties lost population. Green counties grew by up to 4% (light green) and by greater than 4% (dark green). Metropolitan counties are gray. On the interactive map, click to see county-level data.
The data also show significant regional variations and changes in the relative performance of different types of rural counties, according to the ERS.
“While urban population size, metro proximity, attractive scenery, and recreation potential have historically contributed to nonmetro population growth, their influence has weakened (at least for the time being),” the ERS wrote.
Ken Johnson, senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy, said a major part of rural America’s “slow” growth is that some of rural America’s fastest-growing counties get redefined as metropolitan every decade.
“It’s as if after every census, rural America gets diminished,” he said in an interview. “The more successful of the rural counties, in terms of the population change anyway, are the ones that are added to metropolitan areas or create new metropolitan areas.”
Counties may get reclassified as metropolitan if their core city grows to more than 50,000 residents or if more residents commute to a metropolitan county to work. The commuting definition tends to move fringe counties or the exburbs into a metropolitan area over time, as residents settle in adjoining areas and commute to work across county lines.
The roster of nonmetropolitan counties was last updated in 2013. The data in the ERS report used the 2013 list throughout the study period.
Johnson said in the past 50 years, 752 counties were reclassified as metropolitan from nonmetropolitan. “In 2010, they contained 65 million people — 21% of the U.S. total” population, he said. The redefined counties account for most of the proportionate growth in the metro population, he said.
“I’m not trying to minimize the lack of growth in rural America,” Johnson said. “I’m just saying to you, recognize that had you had the old 2000 boundaries, the numbers would have been different. Probably the losses would have been smaller or there might have actually been a gain. You’ll see people say, ‘It’s the first time rural America has actually lost population.’ Again, part of it is because the definition has changed.”
How this story defines rural. This story uses the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) system to define cities, small cities, and rural areas. Metropolitan areas (called “cities” in our charts) are counties that have a city of 50,000 or more. Metropolitan areas also include the surrounding counties (no matter what size their population is) if the counties have strong economic ties to the central metropolitan area. Small cities (micropolitan areas) are outside an MSA and have a city of 10,000 or more residents. Rural areas (noncore) are counties that are not part of an MSA and do not have a city of 10,000 or greater. There’s more (lots more!) on this topic over at the USDA Economic Research Service website.