Rural America’s historic population loss from 2010 to 2020 was part of a broad national trend that saw the U.S. experience its slowest population growth since the Great Depression, according to a new analysis from the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

The population of rural (nonmetropolitan) counties dropped slightly over the decade, falling by 289,000 (0.6%) to 46 million. (See more in the Daily Yonder’s previous reporting.) It’s the first decrease in rural population since the federal government started categorizing metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties. Nationally the population grew 7.4%, the smallest percentage growth since the 1940 Census.

The chief reason for the rural population loss and tepid metropolitan gains was economic, wrote Kenneth M. Johnson, the Carsey School’s senior demographer.

The United States experienced the least population growth since the 1930s because of the economic turbulence of the Great Recession and its aftermath.

Because of difficult economic conditions, immigration and migration slowed and births decreased:

During the decade, immigration to the United States slowed and internal migration diminished because residents were frozen in place by high unemployment, housing debt, and poor economic prospects. At the same time, natural increase [the net difference between births and deaths] declined because there were fewer births and more deaths. In 2020, fertility rates hit record lows and there were the fewest births since 1979. At the same time, deaths were at record highs because of population aging and growing deaths of despair (including from drug overdoses and suicide).  …

The rural population declined because more people moved out than moved in, and because diminishing rural births only minimally exceeded the rising number of deaths. Between 2010 and 2020, the rural population declined by 289,000 because the net migration loss of 510,000 reduced the rural population by -1.1 %, a loss which exceeded the gain from natural increase of 221,000 (0.5%). In contrast, in the prior decade, the rural population grew by 1,516,000 (3.4%) because there was a net gain of 464,000 migrants (1.0%) plus 1,052,000 more births than deaths (2.4%) The shift from net migration gain to loss was widespread. Just a third of rural counties had migration gains between 2010 and 2020, compared to 45% between 2000 and 2010. In contrast, the metropolitan migration gain remained stable over the two decades.

The sharp reduction in natural increase following the Great Recession had a significant impact because it traditionally produced most of the rural population gain, as it did between 2000 and 2010. However, between 2010 and 2020 natural increase contributed only 21% as many new residents to rural America as it had in the last decade. This small gain from natural increase was not sufficient to offset the net migration loss. Fewer births and more deaths also increased the number of rural counties experiencing natural decrease (when more people die than are born). Between 2010 and 2020, deaths exceeded births in 55% of nonmetropolitan counties, up from 37% in the previous decade. This is the highest incidence of rural natural decrease in history, and it predates the onset of COVID-19, which is likely to further accelerate the incidence of natural decrease.

Some rural regions did better than others, Johnson wrote:

Some rural regions experienced widespread population declines, while other rural regions continued to gain population— though at a slower pace than in prior decades (Figure 2). Population gains were widespread in the West and parts of the Southeast. Growth was also evident in many recreational areas of the upper Great Lakes, the Ozarks, and Great Smokies and in northern New England. There were also modest gains just beyond the periphery of some large urban areas in the Northeast. In contrast, population losses were common in large segments of the agricultural heartland of the Great Plains and Corn Belt, as well as in the Mississippi Delta, parts of the northern Appalachians, and in much of the mixed agricultural and industrial belts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Johnson also found big differences in the types of rural counties that gained population in the last decade compared to 2000-2010. Traditionally, rural counties near, or adjacent to, metropolitan areas were prone to grow because of urban spillover. Counties with larger towns were also more likely to grow than other types of rural counties. To compare the decades, Johnson looked at whether rural areas were adjacent to metropolitan areas or had cities of 10,000 to under 50,000.

Rural demographic change between 2010 and 2020 contrasts sharply with the traditional trends of the previous decade. Only micropolitan counties [rural counties that are part of a market area with a city of 10,000 to under 50,000 residents] gained population, and the gains in both Adjacent Micropolitan (0.8%) and Nonadjacent Micropolitan counties (1.2%) were less than a quarter of what they had been in the prior decade. Fewer than half the counties in each micropolitan group gained population during the decade. Among counties without a large town, the population declined by 2.5% in Adjacent Other and 3.2% in Nonadjacent Other counties, with more than 70 percent of each county group losing population. All four county groups experienced net outmigration, with the largest migration losses in the counties without a large town. Natural increase also diminished sharply in all four groups. The population declined among both county groups without a large town because more people died there than were born. Deaths exceeded births in more than 60% of these counties. Even among the micropolitan counties, natural increase was minimal, and nearly 40% of these counties had more deaths than births.

County-level economics also appeared to affect population patterns:

Given the economic turbulence of the past decade, rural demographic change also varied depending on a county’s economic base. Farming no longer dominates the rural economy, but it remains the most important economic activity in 443 rural counties. Nearly 78 percent of these counties lost population between 2010 and 2020 because minimal gains from natural increase were not enough to offset migration losses. Nearly 65 percent of the 357 counties dominated by manufacturing— traditionally a bright spot of rural demographic change—also lost population because migration losses exceeded dwindling natural increase. The demographic story was different in the overlapping groups of 296 nonmetropolitan recreational counties and 193 retirement destination counties which have natural amenities, recreational opportunities, or quality-of-life advantages. Here population gains were widespread because migrants were attracted by the proximate natural and built amenities and related economic opportunities. Though migration gains were smaller than in previous decades, they still produced a population gain in nearly 60 percent of the recreational and retirement destination counties. These four groups do not encompass all nonmetropolitan counties, but they illustrate that rural demographic change is far from monolithic.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.