Recent Population Change

Nonmetro areas in some parts of the country have experienced population loss for decades. However, the 2010-15 period marks the first time with an estimated population loss for nonmetro America as a whole.

  • Population loss of just over 136,000 people represents a quite small -0.29 percentage loss for nonmetro areas as a whole over the 2010-15 period.

  • The number of nonmetro counties losing population during 2010-15 reached an historic high of 1,320. Taken together, these counties declined in population by 647,000 people, while the 656 nonmetro counties that gained population added 511,000 people.

Nonmetro America does "lose" population every 10 years when nonmetro counties that have been growing rapidly enough become reclassified as metro. In the latest update announced by the Office of Management and Budget in March 2013, 113 nonmetro counties (with 5.9 million people) switched to metro status while 36 counties (with 1 million people) no longer qualified as metro, resulting in a net nonmetro population "loss" of 4.9 million from reclassification. The recent nonmetro population trends described here are independent of reclassification, having occurred in a constant set of nonmetro counties. In the long run, removal of fast-growing counties means nonmetro America is less likely to sustain overall population growth.

County population change includes two major components: natural change (births minus deaths) and net migration (in-migrants minus out-migrants).

  • Since 2010, the increase in nonmetro population from natural change (265,000 more births than deaths) has not matched the decrease in population from net migration (401,000 more people moved out than moved in).
  • While natural change has gradually trended downward over time, net migration rates tend to fluctuate in response to economic conditions.
  • Net out-migration rates were sometimes much higher in the past (such as in the 1980s), but were always offset by higher rates of natural increase.

Historically, nonmetro population grew because high rates of natural increase always offset any net migration loss in nonmetro areas.

  • Rural out-migration peaked in the 1950s and 1960s (not shown on graph), but was offset by high "baby boom" birth rates.

  • Net out-migration from nonmetro areas was more severe during the 1980s compared with 2010-15, but overall population change remained positive during the 1980s because natural increase contributed roughly 0.5 percent growth (compared with 0.1 percent recently).

  • Nonmetro net migration rates peaked during the ‘rural rebound’ in the mid-1990s and again in 2004-06, just prior to the recent housing mortgage crisis and economic recession. Net migration remained positive for much of the past two decades, increasing nonmetro population every year but one from 1990 to 2009, but has since contributed to population loss.

  • The Great Recession contributed to a downturn in natural increase, as fewer births occur during times of economic uncertainty. But falling birth rates and an aging population have steadily reduced population growth from natural increase in rural counties over time, in line with global trends.

Lowering rates of natural change contributed to greater population decline in nonmetro areas and resulted in 284 counties experiencing natural decrease for the first time during 2010-15. The map shows natural change for all counties, metro and nonmetro. Urbanized areas (shown in dark gray) are at the center of metro areas and nonmetro counties are those that are some distance removed, depending on the size of the metro area.

  • 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 extending from Pennsylvania through northern Alabama.

  • Counties end up as natural decrease counties as a result of two separate demographic processes operating over several decades: retiree attraction and long-term out-migration of young adults (who take their future children with them, so to speak).

  • Typically, these trends occur in different regions of the country; the former in Florida, Arizona, and other Sunbelt locations; the latter in persistent out-migration areas such as in the Great Plains and Corn Belt. However, both trends are contributing to the emergence of natural decrease counties in many nonmetro regions, such as in Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Michigan.

This first-ever period of overall nonmetro population loss may be short-lived depending on the course of the economic recovery. The cyclical downturn in net migration that began in 2007 bottomed out in 2012, and improving population trends during 2014-15 coincides with a marked improvement in nonmetro employment growth. Even if temporary, this small but historic shift to overall population loss highlights a growing demographic challenge facing many regions across rural and small-town America, as population growth from natural increase is no longer large enough to counter cyclical net migration losses.