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Drug-Abuse Deaths Contribute to Shrinking Rural Population

Rural mortality rates are up, spurred by drug abuse, and it’s dragging down the rural population and draining rural America of its workforce, according to a USDA report that listed grim conditions in a portion of the country perennially coping with lower wages and higher poverty rates than in cities. “Long-term population loss continued in counties dependent on agriculture, in the Great Plains, Midwest, and southern Coastal Plains,” said the annual “Rural America at a Glance.”

Rising rates of prescription medication abuse, especially of opioids, and the related rise in heroin-overdose deaths are contributing to this unprecedented rise in age-specific mortality rates after a century of steady declines,” said USDA. “This trend, if it continues, will not only lower rural population but will increase what is known as the dependency ratio: The number of people likely to be not working (children and retirees) relative to the number of people likely to be wage earners (working-age adults).”

Fewer than 50 million people live in the 1,976 counties that the Census Bureau lists as nonmetro, or rural, “and those counties lost population as a group.” The span of 2000-2016 was the first period of rural population loss, with an overall loss of 200,000 people. Only 625 counties gained population while a record 1,351 lost population since the turn of the century. Most of the growth was concentrated in 138 counties, where gains exceeded 5%, and they were areas where oil and gas production — fracking, in many cases — boomed, or scenic areas where the local economy was based on recreation.

Agriculture and mining are major rural industries in terms of revenue and production but they provide less than 5% of jobs in rural areas. Rural manufacturing accounts for 15% of jobs, although its employment total shrank markedly during the recession. Three service industries — education and health; trade, transportation and utilities; and leisure and hospitality — are the backbone of rural employment, comprising 55% of jobs.

“Persistent outmigration of young adults has aged the rural population, meaning fewer births and more deaths, all else being equal,” said the report before citing the impact of drug abuse. The mortality rate for adults ages 25-29 rose 20% in slightly over a decade. Median household income is lower in rural areas than in cities; residents tend to be older and are more likely to be disabled.

“This first-ever period of overall non-metro population loss may be short-lived,” said USDA. The economy is recovering from the 2008-09 recession. Employment is growing although the job total remains well below prerecession levels. The USDA said recent population estimates “show signs of a population recovery in many parts of rural America in 2015-16, especially in tourism and recreation destinations.”

FERN’s Ag Insider. Produced by FERN
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