Rural American Population is Shrinking – How Come?

The rural population across America is shrinking for the first time in at least 40 years, according to a recent report from the US Department of Agriculture. There is a deep political divide between rural and urban America, and a new poll finds this gap to be more cultural (values) than economic (jobs).

A recent Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll surveyed 1,700 Americans, including more than 1,000 adults living in rural areas. The poll found that rural residents have deep misgivings about the nation’s rapidly changing demographics; their sense is that Christianity is under siege; and their perception is that the federal government caters the most to the needs of people in big cities.

Most rural Americans also have a stark sense of estrangement from people who live in urban areas. Nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from those of people who live in big cities, including over 4 in 10 who say their values are “very different.”

That compares to a little less than half (48%) of urban residents who say their values differ from rural people, with less than 20% saying their values are “very different.”

As for economic opportunities, only 30% of rural Americans rate job opportunities as good or excellent with two-thirds rating them as fair or poor. That compares to almost 50% of urban residents who rate job opportunities as good or excellent.

Most rural areas have experienced a weak economic recovery since the Great Recession of 2008-2009, with the total number of jobs still down 128,000 from pre-recession levels. This compares to urban and suburban counties which have gained about three million jobs over the same period, according to the Labor Department.

Yet the rural unemployment rate is only slightly higher than in cities: 5.3% vs. 4.8%. But rural areas have been affected more by a shrinking workforce as people have left towns or stopped looking for work, while the workforce has grown in cities and suburbs.

The bottom line is that for whatever reasons, rural America is losing population. While the USDA survey results shown below differ somewhat from the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, it is clear that rural counties lost population from 2010 through 2016, setting a new record. Notice also the dramatic swings in population growth in rural counties in the chart below.

I should point out that the percentage of residents moving away from rural counties was actually higher in the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s. What’s changed is a steady decline through the decades in natural population growth (births minus deaths) in rural America. In hundreds of rural counties, most in fact, deaths are now outpacing births.

This is because more and more young people are moving away from rural areas in search of better job opportunities in the cities. This has happened before, but it’s getting to the point where there just aren’t that many young people around anymore. This explains why the average age in rural America is on the rise.

Immigrants from abroad have brought new vitality to many US cities. Yet as of 2013, foreign-born residents made up only 2.4% of the rural population vs. 7.9% in metropolitan areas. Part of this is because rural residents are much more suspicious of immigrants, according to the WAPO/Kaiser survey.

Rural residents are nearly three times as likely, 42%, as compared to people in cities, 16%, to say that immigrants are a burden on the country. Some say this is the result of rural racism. I should point out, however, that there are many small towns with lots of immigrants, especially in farming areas.

Rural Americans also are broadly skeptical that the federal government is fair or effective at improving people’s economic situations. More than 60% say federal efforts to improve living standards either make things worse or have little impact.

And those views appear to feed the rural-urban divide: 56% of rural residents say the federal government does more to help people living in and around large cities, while only 37% feel the government treats both urban and rural areas equally.

While the two surveys discussed above paint a grim picture of rural America, I should point out that things can and do change – as we can see in the last chart above. It shows that the rate of rural population decline has slowed since 2012. If deaths continue to outnumber births in so many rural counties, there’s little reason to think this will improve significantly.

I say this as one who lives in a rural community outside of Austin on beautiful Lake Travis.

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