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Rural America Is Growing Again, USDA Report Shows

Population driven by net migration, not natural growth.

DES MOINES, Iowa --Rural America is growing again. Following six years of consecutive population loss, rural America is starting to turn things around, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS).

Because of a very busy week of news events, the Thursday release of the ERS annual Rural America at a Glance Report might have been overlooked.

ERS geographer, John Cromartie, highlights the most recent indicators of social and economic conditions in rural areas, focusing on how population change, employment growth, and poverty levels vary by race/ethnicity, as well as trends in rural aging. 

It’s interesting to note that the main reason rural America is growing again has to do with net migration vs. natural change (births minus deaths), according to the annual report.

Net migration 

Rural America increased its population between July 2016 and July 2017, after six consecutive years of population loss, according to the latest census estimates released in March 2018.

The small overall increase (adding just 33,000 people in 2016-17) continues an upturn in rural population since 2011-12.

“Here, we focus on population change between 2012-13, when the trends began to reverse, and 2016-17. During this time, the number of rural counties losing population dropped from 1,286 to 1,055.

“Improved labor market conditions across much of rural America, along with higher incomes and recovering real estate markets, account for rural areas as a whole losing fewer residents and attracting more newcomers,” Cromartie stated in the report.

All the recent upturn in rural population comes from higher rates of net migration (inmigrants minus outmigrants) vs. natural change (births minus deaths), ERS noted in the report.

Net migration increased from -0.25% in 2011-12 to essentially 0 in 2016-17, whereas population growth from natural change dropped from 0.12% to 0.08%, according to the ERS data.

“This continues a long-term downward trajectory in natural change due to lower fertility rates, an aging population, and more recently, increasing mortality rates for some age groups. With natural change projected to continue falling, future population growth in rural America will increasingly depend on net inmigration,” the ERS report stated.

With net migration and natural change rates so closely balanced, overall population change for rural America has been quite small. Total population has remained close to 46.1 million since 2013. Annual population losses averaged -0.1% between 2012-13 and 2015-16, and population gain during 2016-17 was just 0.08%. However, national population trends mask great local variation.

Net migration tends to favor more densely settled rural areas with attractive scenic qualities, or those near large cities. Fewer migrants are attracted to sparsely settled, less scenic, remote locations, which compounds economic development challenges in those areas, according to the ERS report.

Despite increasing net migration generally, many rural counties (42%) underwent a decrease in net migration between 2012-13 and 2016-17, according to the ERS annual report. These counties are in low-density, remote areas in the nation’s heartland, in Appalachia from eastern Kentucky to Maine, and in high-poverty areas in the Southeast and border areas of the Southwest. Some of these areas including parts of North Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, Texas, and Pennsylvania — have suffered job losses related to oil and gas production. Other regions, most notably eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, have been hard hit by the opioid epidemic and its effect on natural change.

Less Diverse

Rural America is less racially and ethnically diverse than urban areas. Whites make up nearly 80% of the rural population, compared with 58% of the urban population, according to the ERS report.

The government report indicated that Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the rural population but make up just 9% of the rural population, compared with 20% in urban areas.

Blacks constitute 8% of the rural population, while American Indians are the only minority group with a higher rural than urban share (2% vs. 0.5%).

Relatively few Asians and Pacific Islanders (included in the Other category) are rural residents, with these groups accounting for only 1% and 0.1% of the rural population, respectively. The rest of the Other category (accounting for 1.8% of the rural population) are residents reporting multiple races, the ERS stated in the report.

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