The nation’s rural population grew slightly last year, according to Census Bureau data released today (March 30, 2023).
While the increase was small, it is one more indication that historic losses in nonmetropolitan population in the 2010s have been reversed for the time being.
The number of people living in nonmetropolitan (or rural) counties grew by 56,000 from 2021 to 2022. That’s an increase of 0.12%, about the same as rural America’s population gain two years ago, according to the annual Census population estimates.
Rural or nonmetropolitan counties are not growing as fast as the rest of the nation, which saw a population increase of 0.38%. But even slight growth is a stark contrast to declines in rural population that occurred from 2011 to 2016.
About 46.2 million people live in nonmetropolitan counties, according to the 2022 population estimates.
Growth was uneven, however, and rural counties located farthest from cities saw a slight decline in population.
Growth Came from Migration, not Births
The Census Bureau’s annual population estimates include information on births, deaths, and migration, meaning we can look below the net gains and losses to see what’s causing change in the U.S. population.
In nonmetropolitan counties, growth came from migration, both domestic (U.S. residents who moved to or from rural areas) and international (people who moved to or from the rural U.S. from another country). Nonmetropolitan counties gained about 206,000 residents through migration. About three quarters of that gain came from domestic migration, with the rest coming from international migrants.
But the gain in migration was offset by what is called natural decrease (or increase, depending on whether the number is negative or positive.) Natural increase or decrease is the net of births minus deaths. In 2022, rural counties recorded about half a million births. But nearly 650,000 rural residents died, resulting in a natural decrease in population of about 150,000.
Differences among Metropolitan Areas
For the second year in a row, the central counties of major metropolitan areas (ones with a million or more residents) lost population. But the decline was slight – only about 0.03%, compared to 0.74% in 2021.
The decline in population in the core of major cities has corresponded with the pandemic, when more people began working from home and were less tied to their jobs geographically.
The biggest gains in population occurred in medium-sized metropolitan areas – those with populations of 250,000 to under 1 million. These counties grew by about 0.76% last year, an increase of about 511,000 people.
Small metro areas (ones from 50,000 to 250,000) grew by about 0.5%.
Remote Counties Lost Population
Rural counties located farther from cities were more likely to lose population than rural counties that were close to metropolitan areas.
The table above breaks out nonmetropolitan counties into two types: those that are adjacent to a metropolitan area and those that are not.
Rural counties next to metros grew by about 72,000, while rural counties farther from metropolitan areas lost nearly 16,000 residents.
Regional variation is also evident (see the map at the top of this article). The Intermountain West from New Mexico north to the Canadian border saw population gains in the last year. Other regional growth patterns are obvious in eastern Texas, southwest Missouri; Florida (with the notable exception of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties in the south); Tennessee, northern Georgia, and the western half of North Carolina; and New Hampshire and Maine.
Another interesting pattern of growth is evident in parts of rural Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
Rural regions with noticeable population loss or stagnation include the Mississippi Delta, New York, Appalachia from East Kentucky to New York, and portions of the Great Plains from Texas to North Dakota.
Methodology. This report is based on Census 2022 county population estimates. The analysis does not include Connecticut because of changes that have occurred in how the state defines county units. Some Alaska county equivalents have also been omitted for similar reasons.
How this story defines rural: This story uses the Office of Management and Budget metropolitan statistical area system to define rural. Rural counties are defined as those that are not in a metropolitan statistical area or MSA. In this story, rural is synonymous with nonmetropolitan. There are numerous ways to define rural. You can learn more (much more!) from the USDA Economic Research Research and the U.S. Census.