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After losing population for most of the last decade, rural counties bounced back a bit last year, according to a Daily Yonder analysis of new Census data.

Rural counties added a net of about 117,000 residents from 2020 to 2021. The gain is slight on a percentage basis – less than half a percent – but it’s the biggest annual growth in more than a decade. (This article defines rural as counties that are not located within a Metropolitan Statistical Area, per the Office of Management and Budget, 2013.)

The difference between 2021’s population growth and the loss in previous years was migration. Nearly a quarter million more people moved to rural counties last year than moved out. That’s a dramatic change from most of the last decade.

Related Story: A Stateline analysis of change-of-address forms shows that many movers stayed in the same metro but relocated to less densely populated areas.

Rural America’s gains would have been much greater if not for a net loss in population from deaths. In the last year, 614,000 residents died, while 483,000 births occurred. That gave rural counties a net loss of 131,000 residents due to natural change – the difference between deaths and births.

Rural America also had a modest gain in population through international migration – the movement of people from other countries to the U.S. Rural counties had a net increase of about 13,000 new residents who moved to rural counties from other countries.

The population gain in rural counties was not universal. About half of the nation’s 1,976 rural counties lost population last year.

Explore a full-page version of the map.

The map shows the regional variation in population change. Counties that lost population are shown in red (rural) and black (metropolitan). Counties that gained population are shown in dark green (rural) and light green (metro).

The Great Plains, Southern Black Belt, and Mississippi Delta tended to lose population. The Central and Northern Appalachian regions also had a decline in population.

Most of the nation’s 1,165 metropolitan gained population in the last year. But the big exception is the central counties of the nation’s largest cities – places like New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Houston, all of which lost population in their central counties.

As a group, central counties of major metropolitan areas (1 million or more residents) lost a net of 722,000 residents. The decline was from people moving out of central counties to other parts of the United States. About a million more people left these central cities than moved there in the last year. The loss was softened by a gain of about 300,000 from natural change (births minus deaths) and international migration.

The national population was estimated at about 332 million in 2021, an increase of about 392,000 (or 0.12%) from 2020.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the increase in population in rural areas from 2020-21. The rural population increased by a net of 117,000, not 127,000.

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