Rural America is Aging and Shrinking

Technology and diverging values widen the gap between small-town USA and cities.

Americans in rural areas and small towns see the world a lot differently from those living in and around cities, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll that the newspaper has been reporting on this week.

A lot of the biggest differences in the poll have to do with values, or at least perceptions thereof: About 4 in 10 rural residents say their values are “very different” from those of people in cities and suburbs, while only 2 in 10 urban residents return the favor. But there are also some pretty clear economic contrasts: Only 30 percent of rural Americans rate job opportunities in their communities as excellent or good, compared with 50 percent in urban areas and 45 percent in suburbs.

I also can’t help but wonder if much of the rural sense of estrangement from the metropolitan areas where the great majority of Americans live has to do with a simple and striking demographic reality: Since 2010, for what appears to be the first time ever, rural America has been losing population.

This is from a fascinating new summing-up of rural population dynamics from U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service geographer John Cromartie. The metro/nonmetro divide makes for a more restrictive definition of rural America than the one used in the Post-Kaiser poll, which also classified residents of metropolitan areas with less than 250,000 people as rural. Counties outside of metropolitan areas make up only 14 percent of the U.S. population, while the Post-Kaiser’s rural America contains nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Also, when metropolitan areas are redefined every 10 years, lots of new counties are usually added to them, meaning that nonmetro America is systematically robbed of many of its fastest-growing parts.

Even with all those caveats, though, it’s apparent that something unprecedented is afoot in rural America. In all, 1,350 nonmetro counties lost population from 2010 through 2016, a new record. Migration to other counties accounted for all of that decrease and then some. But the percentage of residents moving away from rural counties was actually much higher in the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s. What’s changed is that a steady decline through the decades in natural population increase (births minus deaths) in rural America means that the natural increase is no longer big enough to offset the outmigration. In hundreds of rural counties, in fact, deaths are now outpacing births. From Cromartie’s report:

Areas that recently began experiencing natural decrease are found in the Northeast, South, and especially in and around the margins of Appalachia, expanding a large region of natural decrease that extends from Pennsylvania through northern Alabama.

Let’s say you live in a place where the population is aging, and more people are dying than being born. Young people are moving away in search of better opportunities, which has happened before, but it’s getting to the point where there just aren’t that many young people around to start with. Immigrants from abroad, who have brought new vitality to many cities, are for the most part just people you see on television (as of 2013, foreign-born residents made up 2.4 percent of the population in nonmetropolitan counties and 7.9 percent in metropolitan areas). Oh, and TV is the essential source of information, because your internet connection is terrible.

This is not a state of affairs that lends itself to optimism or good feelings about the direction the country is headed in. It’s also not one that lends itself to much understanding between rural and urban residents. I would guess that there are fewer families that cross urban/rural lines than there used to be. Also, attitudes toward immigration seem to be split along urban/rural lines, with rural residents much more suspicious of immigrants despite (or, I guess, because of) the fact that there aren’t many immigrants living near them. And then there’s the aforementioned urban/rural gap in internet connectivity.

I am of course painting with an overly broad brush here. There are small towns with lots of immigrants, and there are rural counties (626 of them from 2010 to 2016) that aren’t losing population. But while in the previous decade there were lots of nonmetro counties on the fringes of metropolitan areas and in scenic mountain and coastal regions that experienced rapid population gains, since 2010, rapid growth has generally been confined to nonmetro counties with oil and/or natural gas under them.

These things can and do change, and it’s apparent from the above chart that the rural population decline is at least slowing. Outer suburbs are certainly growing again, which may spill over to neighboring rural counties. If that keeps up, of course, they’ll eventually just get added to the metropolitan areas — to repeat, part of the drag on rural population growth over time is that fast-growing rural areas cease to be rural. But with deaths overtaking births in so many rural counties, and little reason to think that will change anytime soon, there’s something going on here beyond just a statistical quirk.


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