Overview

The number of people living in nonmetro counties increased by 33,000 between July 2016 and July 2017, ending 6 years of modest population losses. The gap between nonmetro and metro growth rates narrowed slightly in recent years, but remains significant. Metro areas grew by 0.82 percent in 2016-17, compared with 0.07 percent growth in nonmetro areas. The post-recession recovery in population growth for nonmetro America during this decade has been much more gradual compared with previous post-recession periods.

In addition to this topic page, ERS provides annual statistics in its County-level Datasets: Population, and State-level (rural/urban) summaries in its State Fact Sheets. A summary of rural population topics (among other rural issues) is found in the Rural America at a Glance series, updated in the fall each year. See the latest report in the series, Rural America at a Glance, 2018 Edition.

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. A summary of the latest conditions and trends includes the following:

  • The total population in nonmetro counties stood at 46.1 million in July 2017—14 percent of U.S. residents spread across 72 percent of the Nation's land area. Annual population losses averaged 48,000 per year between 2010-11 and 2014-15, but dropped to a loss of just 15,000 people in 2015-16 before switching to overall population growth last year.
  • Population change varies widely across rural and small-town America (see map). Over 1,300 nonmetro counties have lost population since 2010, as a group declining by 907,000 people. At the same time, nonmetro counties that gained population added 684,000 residents.
  • Nonmetro population growth from net migration peaked in 2006, then declined precipitously and shifted from positive to negative in response to rising unemployment, housing-market challenges, and other factors. Suburban expansion and migration to scenic retirement and recreation destinations were primary drivers of rural demographic change for several decades, but for the time-being, their influence has considerably weakened.
  • Falling birth rates and an aging population have steadily reduced population growth from natural change (births minus deaths) in nonmetro counties over time. Between 2010 and 2017, 995 nonmetro counties recorded more deaths than births, resulting in a population loss of 284,000 from natural decease in those counties.

Last updated: Tuesday, August 20, 2019

For more information contact: John Cromartie