Rural areas are defined in a number of ways according to the economic or social outcome of interest. Rural economic and demographic changes are closely linked; both are essential to understanding whether diverse rural areas are prospering or in distress, and how underlying factors such as education affect the well-being of rural communities. Recent trends point to relatively slow employment and population growth in rural areas, accompanied by increases in poverty. These trends vary widely across rural America.
Between July 2018 and July 2019, rural (nonmetro) counties as a whole continued a very small increase in population that began a year earlier, following seven years of population decline. The gains in population have been quite small, a 0.02-percent increase in 2018-19 following a 0.04-percent gain in 2017-18. This contrasts with first-ever declines in nonmetro population that occurred from 2010-17, when annual population losses averaged -0.08 percent per year. (These most recent county population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau (as of March 26, 2020) reflect revisions to previous data.) Population growth rates for rural areas have been significantly lower than in urban (metro) areas since the mid-1990s, and the gap widened considerably after the housing-market crisis in 2007 and the Great Recession that followed. The gap between rural and urban growth rates has narrowed slightly in recent years but remains significant. The post-recession recovery in population growth for rural America during this decade has been much more gradual compared with previous post-recession periods.
Rural (nonmetro) population loss has been relatively small—230,000 fewer people in 2019 compared with 2010—but this overall trend masks significant regional and local variation. Population declined in 1,326 rural counties—two-thirds of all rural counties. No longer concentrated in the Great Plains and Corn Belt as in previous years, declining counties are found in high numbers in most States, especially in the eastern half of the country. At the same time, 470 rural counties grew at moderate rates (below the national average of 6.3 percent). Many of these counties are located in recreation or retirement destinations, such as in the southern Appalachians and northern Rockies. The remaining 180 rural counties increased at rates above 6.3 percent. Some of the highest rates of growth during 2010-19 were seen in rural counties with booming energy sectors, such as counties in western North Dakota and west Texas. However, many energy-sector counties experienced a considerable population slowdown after 2015, in line with recent cut-backs in oil and gas production.
Rural areas vary in the industries that underpin their economies. Counties’ employment levels are more sensitive to economic trends that strongly affect their leading industries. For example, trends in agricultural prices have a disproportionate effect on farming-dependent counties, which accounted for nearly 20 percent of all rural counties and 6 percent of the rural population in 2017. Likewise, the boom in U.S. oil and natural gas production that peaked in 2012 increased employment in many mining-dependent rural counties. Meanwhile, the decline in manufacturing employment has particularly affected manufacturing-dependent counties, which accounted for about 18 percent of rural counties and 22 percent of the rural population in 2017.