This map shows the rural counties that lost 10% or more of their population through outmigration. The dark blue counties had poverty rates above 25%.

[imgcontainer] [img:outmap528.jpg] [source]ERS[/source] This map shows the rural counties that lost 10% or more of their population through outmigration. The dark blue counties had poverty rates above 25%. [/imgcontainer]

Editor’s Note: An all-star team of rural demographers and economists at the USDA’s Economic Research Service has issued a report on rural counties that are losing population. David McGranahan, John Cromartie and Timothy Wojan find that many of the counties that have lost population over the last 20 years are, in fact, prosperous. The full report can be found here. Below are excerpts.

Nearly half of today’s nonmetropolitan counties lost population through net outmigration over the past 20 years; for over 700 counties, this loss has exceeded 10 percent.

Population loss tends to increase tax burdens, reduce property values, and reduce both the demand for and supply of local goods and services. Rural outmigration is also troublesome because it is highly concentrated among young adults, especially those possessing or acquiring education and skills.

But what makes outmigration counties different from nonmetro counties that gained from migration or at least had a more manageable loss over the past 20 years? This report identifies 733 nonmetro counties with an estimated net loss in population due to net outmigration of over 10 percent between 1988 and 2008, and compares their characteristics with other nonmetro counties.

What Did the Study Find?

Outmigration counties fall into two distinct types with very different sets of characteristics. One type, with poverty rates exceeding 25 percent in 1999, is clearly hampered by a lack of economic opportunities. High school completion rates are low, poverty rates average over 30 percent, and unemployment rates are chronically high in these high-poverty outmigration counties.

[imgcontainer] [img:PovEmployment528.jpg] Unemployment doesn’t determine which counties have high rates of outmigration. Counties with low unemployment and with high unemployment both had high rates of outmigration. [/imgcontainer]

The other set of counties, however, is generally prosperous. Overall, these counties have higher educational attainment and lower unemployment than rural counties without high outmigration. These counties tend to be remote, thinly settled, and lacking in scenic appeal for prospective residents or tourists. Quality-of-life considerations appear to be a main drawback for these (low-poverty outmigration) counties.

Age Cohort Migration

In general, young adults leave rural areas to attend college, serve in the miltary, or see the world. 

Rural areas gain population through the inmigration of young families, midlife career changers, and retirees.

Outmigration counties tend to have greater net outflow of young adults than other nonmetro counties, losing, on average, the equivalent of over 6 percent of their population this way in 1990-2000. During this period, the low-poverty outmigration counties regained about 1 percent of their population through the net inflow of young families, but had little gain or loss among older cohorts.

[imgcontainer] [img:Outandpoverty528.jpg]Poverty rates didn’t seem to matter to rates of outmigration — except in the rural counties with the highest poverty rates. [/imgcontainer]

High-poverty outmigration counties lost young families, probably due to a lack of economic opportunity, but they, too, had little gain or loss among older cohorts. Most of the young adults moving into outmigration counties appear to be return migrants and related family members, with social ties a major draw.

County Characteristics

Outmigration counties with high poverty share some characteristics with low-poverty outmigration counties. Both groups tend to have less manufacturing than other nonmetro counties, and both are rarely classified as recreation counties.

Otherwise, differences are more striking than similarities. Outmigration counties with high poverty tend to have working-age populations with low rates of high school completion, very high unemployment, low rates of self-employment, and other conditions reflecting socioeconomic hardship.

Outmigration counties with less poverty, however, have working-age populations with higher educational attainment than other nonmetro counties and higher employment rates. These counties are disadvantaged by their remoteness and low population density, their lack of forest cover, and lack of public land.

Most low-poverty outmigration counties are in the lowest third of all nonmetro counties in landscape appeal. Thus, although favored by the level of human resources, these counties have difficulties attracting industries or people without long-term ties to the area.

Local Problems Facing Manufacturers

A 1996 ERS survey asked manufacturers about local factors impeding their competitiveness, and the results show why manufacturers (and other employers) have avoided outmigration counties. 

In high-poverty outmigration counties, the factor most often cited as a major problem, by 41 percent of local manufacturers, was the quality of local schools. Area attractiveness to managers and professionals was reported as a major problem by 28 percent of manufacturers in these counties, and 8 out of 10 of these manufacturers also reported the quality of schools as a major problem. 

In the low-poverty outmigration counties, only 8 percent cited the quality of local schools as a problem. Nonetheless, 25 percent of the manufacturers reported the unattractiveness of the area to managers and professionals as a major problem. In these counties, the problem appears to stem from their remoteness, small population size, and lack of landscape amenities. 

In addition, population loss itself may create an unattractive physical environment, characterized by empty commercial and residential buildings or public property with insufficient upkeep. Localities unattractive to manufacturing managers and professionals are likely unattractive to talented business owners and professionals in general. 

Return Migration

People often view the loss of young people right after high school as the critical migration issue facing rural America. 

For most communities, however, population growth and economic development depend less on retaining high school grads than on attracting newcomers or former residents back later in life.

Return migration—usually defined as an individual moving back to a hometown or other previous place of residence— is a major component of inmigration to most U.S. counties.

[imgcontainer] [img:Landscape528.jpg] The rural counties with the most attractive landscape were also most attractive to those moving from metro areas to rural counties. The darker the green on this map, the more attractive the county’s landscape. [/imgcontainer]

Survey studies are beginning to show what anecdotal evidence has indicated for years: return migrants and their families use their education, experience, and commitment to place to enhance the economic and social wellbeing of rural communities. Return migrants are attracted to many of the same features of rural areas as newcomers, such as a slower pace of life and access to outdoor activities. 

Most return migrants need employment and, like other migrants, often trade larger paychecks for quality-of-life gains. Return migrants differ in the strength of family-related factors motivating migration. These include relying on family support in times of economic stress, joining (or re-joining) family businesses, taking care of aging parents, raising children in safe, familiar environments with access to extended family members, and providing children good educational and sports opportunities.

Education Completed

The argument that education is a key to rural development seems valid when examining high-poverty outmigration counties.

Many of the working-age population in these counties lack high school degrees—an average of 30 percent compared with less than 20 percent in other nonmetro counties. Fifty-seven percent of high-poverty outmigration counties also fall in the bottom third in terms of college completion rates. 

While low education levels in high-poverty outmigration counties may impede local growth in population or jobs, relatively high education levels in low-poverty outmigration counties are not sufficient in themselves to attract or generate rural growth. 

Residents of these low-poverty counties tend to have higher educational attainment than other nonmetro residents, despite the outmigration of young adults. This attainment arguably contributes to population loss as parental households with high levels of schooling are more apt to encourage and more able to support the outmigration of young adults to further their education and enhance employment opportunities. 

Nonmetro differences in levels of schooling are longstanding. While schooling levels in 1950 were everywhere low by contemporary standards, even then the high-poverty outmigration counties were considerably behind in educational attainment, while low-poverty outmigration counties were ahead of other rural counties.

As a group, the predominately Native American high-poverty outmigration counties tend to have education levels comparable to other nonmetro counties, and did so even in 1950. 


Outmigration counties had little manufacturing employment or recreational activity in 2000, compared with other nonmetro counties.

The low-poverty outmigration counties continued to rely on agriculture, the mainstay of many rural areas for much of the past century. The high-poverty outmigration counties were relatively specialized in health, education, and government, all activities either in the public sector or largely dependent on public-sector spending. 

Other nonmetro counties have been more dependent on manufacturing and less dependent on agriculture than outmigration counties over the last 20 years. Manufacturing hung strong during the rural population exodus of the 1950s and 1960s, and continued to shift to nonmetro areas through the 1990s, enabling some rural areas to maintain population despite shedding labor from farming. 

Since 2000, the contraction of manufacturing has been pervasive, but especially pronounced in the high-poverty outmigration counties. Manufacturing’s continuing importance in low-poverty outmigration counties is not due to its own resilience but to the relative lack of growth in other sectors. 

The evolution of industrial structure between 1990 and 2006 suggests a growing dissimilarity between outmigration counties over time. By 2006, education and health services had become the largest industrial sector for all three types of nonmetro counties. These activities are often in the public sector or largely supported by public funds. 

The much larger employment share in high-poverty outmigration counties suggests a continued inability of the private sector to create jobs. In fact, the job shares of all other sectors—with the exception of government—are smallest in high poverty outmigration counties. 

Farming remains the clear specialization of low-poverty outmigration counties relative to all other nonmetro counties.


Nonmetro counties that lost over 10 percent of their population through net outmigration between 1988 and 2008 are a highly diverse group. 

Remoteness and a lack of landscape amenities are key to explaining high outmigration in most, but not all, cases. Many outmigration counties are found in Mississippi, eastern Kentucky, and other rural areas with long histories of poverty, which is less characteristic of counties in the Great Plains. 

From a policy perspective, the distinction between high-poverty and other outmigration counties is an important one, as these two types of outmigration counties face very different circumstances. 

Outmigration counties with high poverty, identified here as having a poverty rate of at least 25 percent in 2000, conform to the idea that population loss through outmigration reflects economic distress. With the partial exception of Native American counties, these counties have low educational attainment, high unemployment, and poor housing conditions. They are a relatively small subset of outmigration counties and are often overlooked by researchers studying the causes and consequences of depopulation, perhaps because they are not already thinly settled. While outmigration from these high-poverty counties appears to be jobs-driven rather than amenity-driven, inadequate education and poor schools appear to be the central development issue in most of these counties, both for attracting jobs and attracting the people who create jobs. 

The other set of outmigration counties, however, tends to show fewer signs of economic distress than nonmetro counties with little or no outmigration. Their residents have relatively high education, low unemployment, and better housing conditions than counties with little or no outmigration. 

The fact that traditional distress indicators used in rural development programs did not target many of the outmigration counties identified here was a key motivation in the establishment of the Northern Great Plains Regional Authority in 2002 and work on the New Homestead Act. These counties tend to be relatively remote and thinly settled, which discourages manufacturers and other employers as well as potential residents. And they generally have few landscape amenities to draw families and retirees from elsewhere. 

People moving to rural areas are generally sacrificing income and access to services to improve their quality of life. For some, this may mean returning to family and friends. For others, however, it means access to the rural outdoors. Without a hometown or family connection, people generally are not going to be drawn to rural areas without interesting landscapes. And employers are less likely to go where they cannot attract skilled workers without paying high premiums. 

The outmigration from lowpoverty counties appears to be more lifestyle-driven than jobs-driven.

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