The number of people living in nonmetro counties declined by nearly 21,000 (-0.05 percent) between July 2015 and July 2016, continuing 6 years of modest population losses. Although many individual nonmetro counties have shown population losses for decades, this is the first period of overall nonmetro population decline. ERS tracks demographic change in nonmetro areas and conducts research to help explain the relationship between population change and the socioeconomic well-being of rural and small-town residents.

  • The total population in nonmetro counties stood at 46.1 million in July 2016—14 percent of U.S. residents spread across 72 percent of the Nation's land area. Annual population losses averaged 43,000 per year between 2011 and 2015, but dropped to 21,000 in 2016.
  • Population change varies widely across rural and small-town America (see map). A record 1,350 nonmetro counties have lost population since 2010, as a group declining by 790,000 people. At the same time, nonmetro counties that gained population added 598,000 residents.
  • Nonmetro population growth from net migration peaked in 2006, then declined precipitously and shifted geographically in response to rising unemployment, housing-market challenges, energy-sector developments, and other factors. Suburban expansion and migration to scenic, retirement/recreation destinations were primary drivers of rural demographic change for several decades, but for the time-being, their influence has considerably weakened.
  • Population growth rates in nonmetro areas have been significantly lower than in metro areas since the mid-1990s, and the gap widened considerably in recent years. While annual rates of population change in nonmetro areas went from 0.7 percent to below zero between 2006 and 2016, metro rates declined only slightly, from 1 percent to 0.8 percent.

See the next chapters on: Recent Population Change and the Shifting Geography of Population Change.