(Daily Yonder/Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing. Source: U.S. Census)

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

For many parts of the country, this has meant long-term declines in population.

These population losses have sped up since 2010, according to Census estimates during the decade. In fact, more than half of all U.S. counties have lost population in the last decade. There is no other 10-year stretch in the last 50 years where half the counties lost population.

The chart below shows the widening scope of the country’s population divide. You can see that, beginning in 2011, half the nation’s counties began to lose population. These losses have continued to this day.

The graph shows the proportion of U.S. counties that lost population each year from 1970 to 2019. The Y axis is shown as a share of all counties (0.5 equals 50%, etc.). (Graph by Robert Cushing based on U.S. Census data)

To be clear, the country isn’t losing population. Since 1970, the nation has gained close to 125 million people. But the distribution of these gains has been concentrated in the nation’s largest cities and their suburbs. (For details, see this Daily Yonder story.)

Mapping the Change

The map above shows rural and urban counties and whether they gained or lost population since 1970.

  • Red designates urban counties (defined as metropolitan according to the Office of Management and Budget) losing population.
  • Orange designates rural counties (defined as nonmetropolitan according to the Office of Management and Budget) losing population from 1970 to 2019.
  • Light blue designates urban counties that gained population.
  • Dark blue designates rural counties that gained population.

The pattern of losses should look familiar. The Appalachian region lost population, as did the Great Plains and the Mississippi Delta. This is true for rural and urban places alike. The losses are disproportionately located east of the Rocky Mountain states.

Now, look below at the map of gains and losses just in the last decade, from 2010 to 2019. This is what it looks like when more than half the nation’s counties lose population in a 10-year period.

The traditional areas of population loss have metastasized. Much of the Deep South “black belt” shows losses, as does the Appalachian region all the way to New York. The losses in the Plains have spread and now much of the Midwest and Upper Midwest also record a decline in population.

In rural America, two-thirds of the counties lost people during this decade. And in metro counties, 31 percent lost population.

The geographic inequality that developed over the last 50 years has intensified and broadened in the last 10.

The charts below list the biggest losers and gainers in percent of population for 1970-2019 and 2010-2019.

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