Two-thirds of the nation’s rural counties lost population over the last decade, according to the latest data from the 2020 U.S. Census.
But the losses were largely offset by gains in the remaining one-third of rural counties, resulting in an overall decrease in rural population of less than 1 percent from 2010 to 2020.
The Daily Yonder looked at the new 2020 county-level population figures released this summer as part of the decennial census rollout. (The data is still subject to revision.)
The number of people living in the nation’s 1,976 nonmetropolitan counties fell by 0.6% from 2010 to 2020, the Census shows – a total decrease of 280,390. The current rural population is 46,059,771, according to Census figures.
To calculate this figure, we used “nonmetropolitan” counties as a stand-in definition for rural, using the 2013 list generated by the federal Office of Management and Budget.
Besides falling in raw numbers during the decade, the proportion of the U.S. population that is rural also fell because the overall size of the U.S. population increased. As of 2020, 13.9% of the U.S. population lives in a rural or nonmetropolitan county. That’s down from 15% in 2010.
Population change was not evenly distributed around the country. First, there are regional differences. The coastal regions generally saw a rise in population while several regions in the interior lost population.
Population decline was notable in the Midwest and Great Plains. There’s also declines along the Southern Black Belt – the crescent that reaches from Southside Virginia to central Mississippi.
The increase or decrease in population also varied by what type of metropolitan area counties were in. Nonmetropolitan (rural) counties were the only type that lost population overall. But counties in larger metropolitan areas tended to gain a larger percentage than counties in smaller metropolitan areas.
The exception to the rule that more urbanization equals more population gain was in the central counties of major metropolitan areas. Those counties gained population, but not quite as much on a percentage basis as the suburbs of those same metropolitan areas. (See graph below.)
Major metropolitan areas are defined as having more than 1 million residents. Medium-sized metropolitan areas have 250,000 to 1 million. Small metropolitan areas have a combined population of under 250,000. And nonmetropolitan counties are not part of a Metropolitan Statistical Area, as defined by the federal Office of Management and Budget.
The list of counties in metropolitan areas changed in 2013, but to keep the study consistent, our analysis used the 2013 version of the list to analyze the data from both 2010 and 2020.