The graph compares population growth in large metro counties to small metros and nonmetro counties. Large metro counties include the core and suburban counties of metros of 1 million or more and the central counties of metros with 250,000 to 1 million. (Robert Cushing using Census population estimates)

The overwhelming population growth story of the past 50 years has been the increasing concentration of people in central cities and their suburbs. At the same time, growth has slowed in rural America and in smaller cities.

The central counties in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas (those with more than a million people) include just 2% of all counties, 59 of 3,142. But these few counties account for 24% the nation’s population growth over the past five decades.

The 951 counties considered the “most rural” today include 30% of all counties, but they account for only 2% of total population growth since 1970. (These are the rural counties that are not adjacent to any Metropolitan Statistical Area.) And the “most rural” counties have been generally losing population in the last decade, much as they did in the 1980s.

Using U.S. Bureau of Census annual population estimates, the graph at the top of this article contrasts the yearly population growth in 435 large metropolitan counties with growth in 2,707 small metropolitan and rural (nonmetropolitan) counties. (See note below on Yonder classifications for more details.)

The rate of overall population growth declined in the last decade, mostly due to waning rates in large metropolitan areas. But real growth in smaller areas is a fraction of growth in large areas. Also, negative effects of recession periods are more pronounced in the small areas. Since population estimates are based on births, deaths, and net migration, part of the decline in the small county population must be due to outmigration to large metro areas.

Since 1970, immigration has fueled some of the population growth depicted in the chart. The immigrant share of the U.S. population in 1970 was 4.7%, the lowest point in over a century (10% in 1850 and nearly 15% in 1910, an all-time high). Today, the immigrant share is now near that all-time high. Large urban areas seem to attract the dominant share of these flows. 

The Big Churn

As rural counties grew, they became urban. Rural America has been “losing” its fastest growing places because population growth has moved them into the metropolitan category. (We should note here that we are using current-day definitions of metropolitan and nonmetropolitan – synonymous with urban and rural for the purposes of this article.) Nearly half of the counties defined as “rural” in 1970 are now defined as urban.

Still, the geographic difference in population growth is remarkable. Recession years have a dampening effect on population growth everywhere, but even in the worst of times, during recessions and pandemics, the 59 large metropolitan areas were still absorbing 300,000 to 400,000 newcomers per year, while the 954 most rural counties were losing people.

The graph compares population change in central counties of major metropolitan areas (1 million or more residents) with population change in rural counties that are not adjacent to a metro area (the most rural counties in the nation). (Robert Cushing/U.S. Census)

The result is these two groups of counties are, in a sense, living in different countries. Where to build the next school can be an issue at one extreme. At the other, the question may be what is the next school to close. Growing counties need to tax and invest in infrastructure, whereas the declining counties are losing the population base needed to sustain the existing infrastructure.

(Robert Cushing/U.S. Census population estimates)

An astonishing 36% of all counties lost population over the past five decades. In the last decade, about half of all counties reported declines in population. That is the longest stretch of such magnitude in the past 50 years. The losses are uneven in terms of magnitude, duration, and location, and, some urban counties lost population during the past 50 years, and many small areas gained population.

So, it is not necessarily all big vs. small, but it is a zero-sum game. When a county “loses” population, that does not mean the population all died. Some undoubtedly did and were not replaced by a birth or a newcomer moving into the county. Many other losses resulted when people just moved and showed up as gains in other counties. Many “gains” in large metropolitan areas may be due to a baby boom or two, but more likely there were new folks moving into town.  

The Yonder Population Mobility Table

With so many moving parts and so much churning over so many years, we use a form of mobility table to summarize (and simplify) the net results. Since all the moving parts are additive components, the table can serve as a benchmark and can be disaggregated by time period or geography for more detailed comparisons.

Note both the population gains and population losses are expressed as proportion of each total. The difference between the two tells something about each Yonder category.

The biggest (Major Metro Core) and the smallest two types (Rural, Adjacent to Metro County and Rural, Not Adjacent to Metro County) have substantial losses.

Notice the 17% net gain for the Major Metro Suburban counties and 8% net gain for Medium Metro Core counties.  They seem to be soaking up folks from everywhere else, including the counties in or near the metro area.

As far as population growth is concerned, the most rural places seem to be in a downward trajectory.

Robert Cushing is a retired professor of sociology at the University of Texas Austin. He is the coauthor, with Bill Bishop, of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.

Notes

See the U.S. Census website for a fuller discussion of the use and construction of mobility tables.

County Classifications

  • Major Metro Core: Central counties of metropolitan areas of 1 million residents or more.
  • Major Metropolitan Suburban: Suburban counties of metropolitan areas of 1 million residents or more.
  • Major Metro Exurbs: Outlying counties located within a Major Metropolitan Area but where a majority of the population lives in nonurbanized (or rural) settings, as defined by the Census.
  • Medium Metro Core: Central counties of metropolitan areas with 250,000 to 999,999 residents.
  • Medium Metro Suburban: Suburban counties of metropolitan areas with 250,000 to 999,999 residents.
  • Small Metro: All counties that are in a metropolitan area under 250,000 residents.
  • Rural, Adjacent: Nonmetropolitan counties that are adjacent to a metropolitan area.
  • Rural, Not Adjacent: Nonmetropolitan counties that are not adjacent to a metropolitan area.