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Half of all U.S. counties lost jobs over the last two decades, according to figures supplied by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Rural America lost jobs between 2000 and 2019. But the trend in jobs isn’t just a rural vs. urban story.

The nation as a whole gained 20.2 million jobs from 2000 to 2019, a 14.8 percent increase.

But the federal employment figures point out is that there are two different countries — one that is gaining jobs and people and another that is losing both. The division between those two countries is created not only by the difference between the city and the countryside, but by the structure of local economies and local levels of education.

We compared job totals in 2000 to those in 2019, before the employment markets were shattered by the onset of Covid-19. We looked at three factors that seem to have an effect on job creation over the past 20 years: metropolitan status, local economic types, and residents’ education levels.

The Bigger the City, the Bigger the Job Growth

We broke U.S. counties into several categories, based on the size of the metropolitan area they were in and whether they were in the central city or in the suburbs. (The county types are in the list at the bottom of this article.)

What we found is that, broadly speaking, the bigger the city, the bigger the percentage increase in jobs. As cities got smaller, so did the percentage growth in jobs. And in nonmetropolitan counties, which lost jobs from 2000 to 2019, the more remote the county, the bigger the loss in jobs.

The graph shows the percentage change in employment from 2000 to 2019 by county type. ("Major metro" counties are in a metropolitan area with a population of more than 1 million. "Medium-sized metro" counties are in a metropolitan areas with a population of 250,000 to 1 million. "Small metro" counties are in a metropolitan area with a population under 250,000. "Nonmetro (rural)" are counties that are not part of a metropolitan area.) (Daily Yonder/Bureau of Labor Statistics/Office of Management and Budget)

The areas that saw the biggest percentage growth – and the most jobs -- during the (nearly) 20-year period were the suburban counties in the country’s major metropolitan areas. Examples of this kind of county are the suburbs of big cities like Houston, Portland (Oregon), and Atlanta. These big-city suburbs added nearly 8.1 million jobs, an increase of 20.9% over 2000.

The next biggest gain was in the central counties of these major metropolitan areas. These counties added 6.7 million jobs -- a 17.6% increase -- since 2000. Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix), and Harris County, Texas (central Houston), alone gained 1.2 million jobs in the two decades.

In medium-sized metropolitan areas, the central counties, not the suburbs, had a bigger rate of job growth. In the central counties of medium-sized metros, jobs increased by 15.6% since 2000. In the suburbs of medium-sized metros, jobs grew by 14.1%

Small metropolitan areas (including both the central counties and suburban counties) had an 11.1% increase in jobs.

Nonmetropolitan, or rural, counties had a decrease in employment of 1.1%. The decline was slightly worse in counties that didn’t touch a metropolitan area than in counties that were adjacent to a metropolitan area.

Six out of 10 rural counties lost jobs over these two decades. Some 29 percent of urban counties lost jobs. Out of 3,134 counties in the nation, 1,572 had fewer jobs in 2019 than in 2000.

The map above shows changes in jobs in both rural and urban counties. Dark red counties are rural and lost jobs. Light red counties are rural and gained jobs since 2000.

Dark blue counties are urban areas that lost jobs. Light blue counties are urban areas that gained jobs.

(Not surprisingly, this map looks remarkably similar to maps showing population gains and losses over the last few decades.)

Local Economies

Job losses and gains reflected local economies and industries. For example, counties largely dependent on farming lost nearly 3% of their jobs in the two decades, a decline of 44,000 jobs. Counties with manufacturing economies scratched out a small 5.3% increase in jobs. (These designations come from the USDA’s Economic Research service; if you roll your mouse over the map, you will find what kind of industry dominates each county.)

It is no wonder that the Great Plains in the map above show large number of counties that lost jobs. And the largest job losers among urban counties were the old Midwestern manufacturing towns, such as Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis.

The biggest job gainers in rural America were recreation counties, such as Gallatin County, Montana, and Hawaii County, Hawaii. In fact, the counties, urban and rural, with the fastest growing job base over the last two decades, according to the USDA Economic Research Service, were places with strong recreation economies. Across the country, recreation counties increased their jobs by just over 25% from 2000 to 2019.

Daily Yonder/Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census

Education Levels

Job gains were also affected by local education levels. The higher the percentage of adults with college degrees in 2019, the larger the job gains over the previous two decades.

Counties with 23% or less of the adult population having B.A. degrees in 2019 increased their jobs by just 6% since 2000. Those where more than 40% of the adults had B.A. degrees had a 21.4% increase in jobs over the two decades.

Types of Metropolitan/Nonmetropolitan Areas

Here are the six categories we used for our analysis of jobs by county metropolitan status:

  • Major metropolitan areas central cities – the core counties of metropolitan areas with more than 1 million residents.
  • Major metropolitan areas suburbs – the suburban counties of metropolitan areas with more than 1 million residents.
  • Medium-sized metropolitan areas central cities – the core counties of metropolitan areas with 250,000 to 1 million residents.
  • Medium-sized metropolitan areas suburbs – the suburban counties of metropolitan areas with 250,000 to 1 million residents.
  • Small metropolitan areas – all counties comprising metropolitan areas with fewer than 250,000 residents.
  • Nonmetropolitan (rural) counties – counties that are not part of a metropolitan statistical areas.

Bill Bishop is the founding co-editor of the Daily Yonder and currently reports for and advises the Daily Yonder as a contributing editor.

Robert Cushing is a retired professor of sociology at the University of Texas Austin.