Population loss in rural America since 2010

Countering a recent argument that rural areas are experiencing a “brain gain,” new Census data shows nonmetro counties experienced a net population loss between 2010 and 2012:

The number of people living in nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) counties now stands at 46.2 million–15 percent of U.S. residents spread across 72 percent of the land area of the U.S. Population growth rates in nonmetro areas have been lower than those in metro areas since the mid-1990s, and the gap widened considerably in recent years. While nonmetro areas in some parts of the country have experienced population loss for decades, nonmetro counties as a whole gained population every year for which county population estimates are available–until recently. Between April 2010 and July 2012, nonmetro counties declined in total population by 44,000 people, a -0.09-percent drop according to the most recent release of annual county population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. County population change includes two major components: natural change (births minus deaths, also available separately) and net migration (inmigrants minus outmigrants). Nonmetro population loss during 2010-12 reflects natural increase of 135,000 offset by net outmigration of -179,000.

New population estimates are subject to revision, the rate of nonmetro population decline since 2010 is quite small, and the trend may be short-lived depending on the course of the economic recovery. Nonetheless, the 2010-12 period marks the first years with estimated population loss for nonmetro America as a whole. Even if temporary, this historic shift highlights a growing demographic challenge facing many regions across rural and small-town America, as population growth from natural change is no longer large enough to counter cyclical net migration losses.

And here is an interesting chart looking at population growth in cities, suburbs, and rural areas:

This would seem to contradict the idea of a rural “brain gain.” Perhaps it is a more complicated story:

1. More educated people could be choosing to move to rural areas but less educated people are leaving rural areas in search of opportunities elsewhere.

2. A “brain gain” is happening in certain places but not across rural areas as a whole.

But, the takeaway is still important: this may be when American rural areas really run into problems as the natural population growth is not enough to keep up with out-migration.

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