Updated Jun 20, 2018

Why rural counties are dying in America

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Data: U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Rural counties — particularly in the Midwest and Northeast of the U.S. — are losing people due to higher death rates than birth rates and more people moving away than moving in.

The outlook: The 2020 census is likely to show the extent of this drastic trend. "Barring a significant reversal in the next few years," Richard Fry of the Pew Research Center tells Axios, "the share of the population living in rural counties will be less than it was in 2010 ... Rural clout in Congress and the electoral college will be diminished."

By the numbers: Overall, non-metro areas increased in population between 2000 and 2015, but a majority of rural counties saw their populations dwindle, including 54% of rural counties in the Northeast and 68% of those in the Midwest, according to a study by Pew Research.

Here's why most rural areas are losing population:

1. Exodus of jobs and youth
  • 73% of rural counties had more people move out than move in, says Fry, and the trend was again most notable in the Northeast and Midwest.
  • Of the 1,969 rural counties Pew Research studied, almost 1,197 have fewer people employed today than they did in 2000.
  • Yes, but: Not all non-metropolitan areas are losing all of their young people. "Places that have somehow brought some high-tech industries to their boundaries have not done as poorly," William Frey of the Brookings Institution tells Axios.

With technology allowing us to be more connected than ever, many economists and demographers thought there would be a rural revival, but that hasn't happened. One popular theory, according to Frey, focuses on the important advantage of in-person networking.

"Businesses and people have been concentrating in certain metro areas, because when they can rub shoulders with each other, they can generate ideas and business contacts."
— William Frey
2. Birth rates vs. death rates

It's long been the case that young people tend to move out of more rural areas at a rate higher than people move in. A newer trend is that there are more people dying in many rural areas than being born.

  • Aging community: The percentage of rural citizens who are 65+ is 4% higher than the national average, Frey says, which means these areas have fewer people of child-bearing age.
  • Death rates: While death rates in metro areas for 18- to 64-year-olds have been declining, these working-age deaths have been on the rise in more rural areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • Birth rates: It's not just that there fewer people of child-bearing age — people across the U.S. are having fewer children, a trend that affects rural counties too. Rural communities are no longer able to match the rate of migration with natural population increase.
3. Immigrants and minorities

Rural areas are overwhelmingly white — only 2.3% of the population in rural counties is foreign-born, compared to nearly 15% in urban counties, according to Census data. Because of this, they continue to struggle to attract immigrants and minorities, who tend to move to urban areas.

  • One key trend: Minorities and immigrants have already started moving out to suburban areas. And as immigrants and non-whites become an increasingly large percentage of the U.S. population, they could eventually move to rural areas as well.
4. Opioids

Higher death rates for 18 to 64-year-olds in rural counties are often attributed at least in part to the opioid epidemic, which has ravaged many rural areas in the U.S.

What to watch:
  • 2016 was a "demographic anomaly," according to Frey, who says the rural areas that voted for Trump are not likely to have as much impact on future elections. Instead, "it will be demographic subgroups like racial minorities and women who will be more likely to sway things."
  • There were signs of a reversal of rural population losses last year, Frey says — but "one year does not make a trend, so we don’t know whether this is really a reversal or whether just a blip. "
  • Some states are making efforts to increase the population of rural areas. Vermont, a mostly rural state, has started a program to pay people with jobs elsewhere to live in the state and work remotely.

Go deeper:

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