Nonmetropolitan counties gained population from 2010 to 2020 in natural increase and international migration. Population loss from domestic migration (people leaving nonmetro counties) was greater however. The result was a net decrease in nonmetro population of nearly 260,000 for the period. (U.S. Census data)

After gaining about 1 million residents from 2000 to 2010, the nation’s nonmetropolitan population fell by 260,000 residents in the most recent decade. The decrease from 2010 to 2020 was slight — about half a percentage point. And it was fueled by increased domestic migration — movement of people from nonmetropolitan counties to metropolitan ones — not by the number deaths and births.

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The Census keeps track of what it calls components of population change to better understand population growth or decline. These components include natural (difference between births and deaths), international, and domestic (population movement within and across the United States).

Using this dataset, we look back over the past two decades (2000-2010 and 2010-2020) to peel off these dynamics for multiple areas of the country and get a better sense of how these areas are changing and why. Our focus will be metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas of the country, and their subgroups using the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Urban Continuum Code. This typology breaks down metropolitan areas in three types: with a population of 1 million or more, between 250,000 and less than one million, and less than 250,000.

On the nonmetropolitan side, it breaks down areas by adjacent or not adjacent to metropolitan areas and whether they have an urban core of more than 20,000, between 2,500 and less than 20,000, and less than 2,500 population. Please note that these are based on population estimates and totals may not add up due to population residuals.

Figure 1 shows the nation’s cumulative population change by components in the 2000-2010 and 2010-2020 decades. “Natural” is increase in population due to births, minus deaths. “International” is migration from other nations. Note that domestic migration is not included because it adds up to zero when looking at the nation. (Data: U.S. Census)

Figure 1 shows the country’s cumulative population change by components in the 2000-2010 and 2010-2020 decades. Note that the domestic category is not included because it adds up to zero when looking at the nation. The country’s population increased by roughly 25 million in the 2000-2010 decade. This growth slowed down for the 2010-2020 decade increasing by 20 million. The international component—or immigration—accounted for 35% of the nation’s increase in 2000-2010 compared to 40% in the 2010-2020 decade.  

Figures 2 & 3 (below) look at the metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas of the country using the typology explained above. Population areas in metropolitan counties increased by 24 million in 2000-2010 slowing to almost 21 million in 2010-2020. The nonmetropolitan areas of the country gained a million in population in 2000-2010 while losing almost 260,000 in 2010-2020.

Metropolitan counties. Components of population change are natural increase (shown in blue, births minus deaths), net international migration (green), and net domestic migration (red, the net of population movement from nonmetropolitan to metropolitan counties). (Data: U.S. Census)
Nonmetropolitan counties. See description for figure 2. (U.S. Census)

As expected, most of the growth during these two decades took place in metropolitan counties. In fact, the nonmetropolitan loss matched the metropolitan gain when looking at the domestic component in both decades (confirming our math is correct). Notice how the natural component decreased in both metro and nonmetro areas of the country during this period by 3 million in metro areas and close to 700,000 in nonmetro areas. The international component also decreased in both metro and nonmetro areas.

What about within the metropolitan categories?

Figures 4-6 show the population change by components and decades for each of the three metropolitan categories. All metro types gained population during both decades, but the increase in the 2010-2020 was smaller compared to the 2000-2010 decade. Large metros (1 million or more population) lost population due to domestic migration during both decades, though the decrease was larger in the 2000-2010 decade, while the other two metro types gained population. The natural component’s share of population changes also decreased as did the international component.

Counties in metropolitan areas with 1 million or more residents. (U.S. Census data)
Counties in metropolitan areas of 250,000 to under 1 million residents. (U.S. Census data)
Counties in metropolitan areas with under 250,000 residents. (U.S. Census data)

For the nonmetropolitan counties, Figures 7 & 8 show those adjacent and not adjacent to metropolitan areas components of population change. While nonmetropolitan areas adjacent to metropolitan gained population in the 2000-2010 decade, they lost population in the 2010-2020 due to domestic migration. The natural component plummeted between the 2000-2010 and 2010-2020 decades from contributing 633,000 to contributing close to 53,000, respectively.  

Regarding the nonmetropolitan areas not adjacent to metropolitan counties, their population increased also in 2000-2010 decade but decreased during the 2010-2020 decade. Again, due to domestic migration. The natural component also decreased, but not as much as the adjacent to metropolitan areas, while the international component also decreased.

Nonmetropolitan counties that are adjacent to a metropolitan statistical area. (U.S. Census data)
Nonmetropolitan counties that are not adjacent to a metropolitan statistical area. (U.S. Census data)

The interactive table below lists the cumulative components of population change by state (including District of Columbia) for the 2000-2010 and 2010-2020 decades. The natural component increased in only three states (District of Columbia, North Dakota, and South Dakota) while the international component increased in 33 states and the domestic component increased in 24 states.

To conclude and as expected, metropolitan areas gained population during the past two decades at the expense of nonmetropolitan areas. However, within metropolitan areas, there was domestic migration taking place causing large metropolitan areas to lose population. This trend took place during both decades but was larger in the 2000-2010 decade. On the nonmetropolitan front, population loss was due to domestic migration. It will be interesting to see how this plays out this decade, especially due to Covid-19.

Supporting findings from other studies, the natural component (births minus deaths) is contributing less to population change, regardless of metropolitan status. This decrease accelerated during the past decade, and it remains to be seen if it will slow down or accelerate in this decade. This trend is being seen worldwide and is not unique to the United States.  

Lastly, the international or immigration component buffered population losses in both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. This highlights the importance of welcoming and helping these groups assimilate into a community’s culture. Without them, population loss would have been higher coupled with the decreasing natural component and in nonmetropolitan areas, domestic migration.

Roberto Gallardo is a rural development and broadband specialist who has written extensively for the Daily Yonder. He is director of the Purdue University Center for Regional Development.