By JORDAN STRICKLER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the first time in seven years, rural areas are seeing a slight uptick in population. According to the USDA’s annual Rural America at a Glance report, measured from July 2016-June 2017, rural America has increased by 33,000 people, or a bump of 0.08 percent.
“Here, we focus on population change between 2012-13, when the trends began to reverse, and 2016-17,” said John Cromartie, a geographer with the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS). “During this time, the number of rural counties losing population dropped from 1,286 to 1,055.
“Improved labor market conditions across much of rural America, along with higher incomes and recovering real estate markets, account for rural areas as a whole losing fewer residents and attracting more newcomers.”
In the report, the ERS stated the recent increase comes from higher rates of net migration (in-migrants minus out-migrants) versus natural change (births minus deaths). Net migration increased from -0.25 percent in 2011-12 to essentially zero in 2016-17, whereas population growth from natural change dropped from 0.12 to 0.08 percent.
The report states that net migration tends to favor more densely settled rural areas with attractive scenic qualities, or those near large cities. Fewer migrants are attracted to sparsely settled, less scenic, remote locations, which compounds economic development challenges in those areas.
Since peaking at 10.3 percent in 2010, the rural unemployment rate steadily declined to 4.4 percent in 2017; urban areas followed suit, with unemployment dropping from 9.9 to 4.1 percent. Declining unemployment rates and a small increase in population ages 16 and older corresponded to the addition of more than 650,000 jobs in rural counties between 2013-17.
“I think you are seeing rural growth right now for a few reasons,” said Bill Brown, executive director of the University of Indiana Center for Rural Engagement, of the turnaround. “For one, you are seeing more job growth. As more people move to rural areas, the labor force there is increasing.
“For another, rural communities are becoming more affordable. There are fewer living expenses, and many are finding the cost of living in the cities to be too costly.”
Despite increasing net migration generally, 42 percent of rural counties underwent a decline in net migration between 2012-13 and 2016-17, according to the ERS report. These counties are in low-density, remote areas in the nation’s heartland, in Appalachia from eastern Kentucky to Maine, and in high-poverty areas in the Southeast and border areas of the Southwest.
Some of these regions, including parts of North Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, Texas and Pennsylvania, have suffered job losses related to oil and gas production. Other regions – most notably eastern Kentucky and West Virginia – have been hard hit by the opioid epidemic and its effect on natural change.
While many reports show a grim outlook for rural populations in the Midwest, Brown said that isn’t necessarily true.
“I just don’t see things playing out like the media says. I’m just not seeing the negative narrative here. I believe that rural areas, especially the heartland, might actually be a hotspot of migration. Rural areas are becoming the next great economic development,” he explained.
“If you look at a lot of small communities, they are really starting to up their game. Rural areas are attracting more recreational facilities, they are attracting more Main Street businesses, families are returning because they are finding that rural areas are better places to grow a family, and you’re seeing an influx of retirees settling down.
“I am really seeing some positive things happening to the rural landscape.”