Fig. 1. Percent Change in Non-White or Hispanic Population 18 and older 2010-20 Non-white refers to all individuals who do not identify as white, which includes multiracial identifying people. Hispanics may be of any race, according to Census definitions. Source: data.census.gov.

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Rural (nonmetro) population dropped slightly from 2010 to 2020. (A historic first, as demographer Ken Johnson notes). But parts of rural America are adding population, and some segments of the rural population -- especially adults, people of color, and Hispanics -- are growing.

Rural America’s adult population (ages 18 and up) increased 1.2%, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. During the same period, the share of the adult rural population composed of people of color and Hispanics grew by 22%, from 17.1% in 2010 to 20.8% in 2020.  Diversity in the adult population increased in over 95% of the nation's rural counties since the last census -- about the same percentage as urban counties.

Fig. 1.b. Percent of Population Adult Non-White or Hispanic 2020 The Census introduces statistical noise into small populations to keep data anonymous. Exceptionally small non-white population counts are close to accurate, but may be slightly distorted.

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Fig. 2. Adult Non-Hispanic White Adults 2020. Because some Hispanic individuals identify as white, the Census divides populations into "Hispanic or Latino" as one group and white individuals who claim no Hispanic heritage, "white alone," as a separate group. The percentage of Non-Hispanic whites is utilized as a proxy for diversity to account for statistical noise introduced into small populations, which can significantly distort population trends in percent-change maps. Adult Non-Hispanic whites account for a smaller percentage of the overall adult population of rural counties in 2020 compared to 2010. This trend is most pronounced in places like Nevada, Wyoming, and southern Idaho, among others. Source: data.census.gov.

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While the most severe rural depopulation is concentrated in the Great Plains and counties that are not adjacent to metropolitan areas, many other rural counties have exhibited significant population growth and diversification over the last decade, particularly in Western states. Pockets of the most significant rural growth and diversification are in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. 



Methodology

  • This article compares adult population (ages 18 and older) in the 2010 and 2020 census.
  • Rural is defined as nonmetropolitan counties -- counties that are not located within a Metropolitan Statistical Area, as defined by the Office of Management and Budget, 2013. In this article, rural and nonmetropolitan are synonymous, as are metropolitan and urban.
  • For diversity calculations, this article creates two categories of population: 1) white, non-Hispanic and 2) non-white or Hispanic. Non-white population includes people who identify as Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. It also includes people who choose more than one race. Hispanic or Latino residents may be any race, but are grouped with people of color in this study for the purpose of quantifying diversity.


Madison County, Idaho, had the highest percent change in adult population in the state, with an increase of 51% between 2010-2020. That’s six times higher than the state’s rural-adult growth average 8.5%. The county’s minority population also increased. In 2010, there were 2,267 non-white or Hispanic adults in the county, comprising about 8% of the population. By 2020, non-white or Hispanic adults comprised almost 17% of the county with 7,021 individuals. 

Some Oregon and Washington counties exhibit similar trends. Crook County, Oregon, experienced the most pronounced adult population growth of rural counties in the state at 21%. Non-white or Hispanic adult population in the county grew from 1,361 individuals in 2010 (8.3% of the total adult population) to 2,693 individuals in 2020 (13.5% of the total adult population). Klickitat County, Washington, grew by 16%. The share of population that was Non-white or Hispanic adults grew by nearly 7 percentage points, 12.8% of total population in 2010 to 19.5% of total population in 2020.

Upper Midwest

Though less dramatic, parts of the Upper Midwest underwent similar demographic shifts over the last decade. The rural counties that experienced the most population growth in the Upper Midwest were those in parts of Wisconsin and Northern Michigan. For example, the adult minority population of Lake County, Michigan, grew by 11%.

Fig. 3. Total Population Changes: Percent change in population of individuals 18 years and older. Source: data.census.gov.

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Fig. 4. Rural County Adult Population Change 2010-2020 Percent change in rural population. Source: data.census.gov.

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Southern Appalachia 

The rural adult population in Southern Appalachian counties grew, on average, by 5.6%. The definition of Southern Appalachia is variable but, for this analysis, includes southern West Virginia, western North and South Carolina, northern Alabama, southeastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee. 

Jackson County, Georgia, experienced a 27% population growth in adults and an 18% increase in minority populations. The establishment of SK Innovation, a lithium-ion battery manufacturing facility, has contributed to the recent population boom. The facility is expected to produce at least 2,600 jobs in the coming years. Construction workers have already increased housing demands in the area. 

Other Southern Appalachian counties such as Lumpkin County, Georgia, exhibited a 17% increase in the adult population and a 5% increase in minority populations. Sevier and Cumberland counties in Tennessee have exhibited similar trends over the last decade. 

Almost 10% of Southern Appalachian counties experienced population growth greater than or equal to 10%. In all but a handful of these counties, minority populations grew at a faster rate than white populations. 

Hispanic and Latino Growth and Diversity

Hispanic or Latino population growth has been responsible for most of the diversification in rural counties over the last decade. The Census Bureau groups Hispanic and Latino individuals into the same category. One complicating factor is that Hispanics/Latinos may be of any race.

Recent reports have mentioned that many rural counties would have decreased significantly were it not for substantial increases in their Hispanic populations. Ninety percent of all rural counties would have lost population if not for Hispanic growth. That’s true for 100% of rural counties in Southern Appalachia that gained overall population.

Fig 5. Change in Adult Hispanic Population. Growth of Hispanic or Latino individuals 18 years and over. 86% of rural counties exhibited a growth in Hispanic or Latino population over the last decade. Source: data.census.gov.

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Fig 6. Change in Adult Black Population. Growth in Black or African-American individuals 18 years and over. 52% of rural counties exhibited growth in Black or African American population over the last decade. Source: data.census.gov.

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Why are some rural counties gaining significantly, while others are losing? A recent USDA report provides some insight on these trends:

People moving to rural areas tend to persistently favor more densely settled rural areas with attractive scenic qualities, or those near large cities. Fewer are moving to sparsely settled, less scenic, and more remote locations, which compounds economic development challenges in those areas.

Depopulating rural counties are also more likely to have suffered job losses to the oil and gas industry, while others have been heavily impacted by the opioid crisis.

On the other hand, Ken Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, says various factors are contributing to growth in rural counties. 

“[Rural counties] can become more diverse because a minority population moved in, or [they] can become more diverse faster if more minorities come in and whites are declining,” he said. “So that dynamic is underway where the white population isn’t growing very much. And the minority side is actually growing. And it’s growing both because of natural increase, because there are more minority births than deaths, and in some areas by migration.”

Johnson warned that some spikes in the percentage of growth of minorities may not reflect significant change. Because some rural counties have small populations to begin with, a small increase in one race or ethnicity may appear more significant than it really is. Huge population spikes may also be “idiosyncratic,” or, unrelated to regional trends. Idiosyncratic population growth in rural counties often occurs when new prisons open or organizations such as churches encourage refugee settlement, says Johnson. 

Broadband access may have also influenced rural populations, although it is unclear whether access encouraged growth or the other way around, according to a recent Daily Yonder article.

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