Hispanic Gains Minimize Population Losses in Rural America

(August 2007) New population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that Hispanics continue to fuel rapid population growth in the United States. Between 2000 and 2006, the Hispanic population grew from 35.3 million to 44.3 million, a 26 percent increase.

The Hispanic population is growing the fastest in large metropolitan areas, particularly in the South. But Hispanics increasingly are moving to rural areas, and helping to offset population losses in communities with stagnant or declining populations.

Historically, most Latinos have settled in the southwestern United States or in large metropolitan areas on the East or West coasts. In 2006, 93 percent of Latinos lived in metro areas, a higher percentage than both non-Hispanic blacks (89 percent) and non-Hispanic whites (80 percent).

But Hispanics increasingly are attracted to new job opportunities and the low cost of living outside of major metropolitan areas.1 Between 2000 and 2006, the total population in small towns and rural areas increased by 3 percent, but the Hispanic population in these counties grew from 2.6 million to 3.2 million, a 22 percent increase. Since 1990, the Hispanic population in small towns and rural areas has more than doubled.

The Census Bureau estimates that 1,220 of the nation’s 3,141 counties have lost population since 2000. In 1,054 of these counties, the Hispanic population increased, minimizing overall population losses (see map). Most of the population losses were in rural counties, especially in the Great Plains, northern and central Appalachia, and in poor regions of the rural South and West. Combined, these counties lost nearly 1.8 million people between 2000 and 2006. Without the growth of Latinos into these counties, their overall population loss would have exceeded 2.2 million.

Another 221 counties avoided population loss since 2000 because of Latino population gains. Many—but not all—of these counties were located in densely populated urban areas, including New York, Miami-Dade County, and the metropolitan areas clustered along the California coast.

In rural and small-town areas, counties that have lost population also often have lost jobs in farming, manufacturing, mining, or other core industries.2 Many of these counties are creating new opportunities for employment, but the jobs tend to be low-wage positions in commercial agriculture, meatpacking, carpeting, and other manufacturing sectors that are more attractive to recent immigrants.3 Thus, as U.S.-born workers seek job opportunities elsewhere, they are gradually replaced by foreign-born workers (about half of whom are Hispanic) who are often willing to work for less money. Many of the new immigrants start families once they arrive in the United States, further contributing to population growth.

What are the implications of this demographic shift in rural and small-town America? In many rural areas, Hispanic population growth has helped revive communities by sustaining businesses and housing markets, and by providing needed tax revenue. At the same time, there may be a clash of cultures between long-term residents and their new neighbors. The influx of new residents, who typically have less education and lower incomes than the general population, can also lead to higher poverty rates and a greater reliance on public services.4

New Areas of Hispanic Population Growth

During the 1990s, Hispanic population growth—as measured by their share of the total population—was fastest in Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, and parts of the South and Midwest. Since 2000, Hispanic growth has continued in many of these areas but there are also new areas of growth, including exurban counties in the Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas, plus parts of Texas, central Florida, and a few other states (see map). Overall, we identified 112 counties as new areas of rapid Hispanic population growth.5

In some areas—including the region around Washington, D.C.—the rise in housing costs since 2000 could be a key factor pushing Latinos farther away from cities and into suburban counties, where homes often are more affordable.

There were also 353 counties with continuous, rapid Hispanic population growth since 1990. Counties in this group include not only traditional Latino areas in California, metropolitan New York, the Southwest (including Texas), and southern Florida, and but also several counties in North Carolina, Georgia (particularly around Atlanta), Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas, and the interior parts of Oregon and Washington states.

Finally, there were 129 counties—geographically dispersed across the United States—that had higher-than average Hispanic population growth during the 1990s, but saw slower rates of growth since 2000. Most of these counties are adjacent to areas of continuous, rapid growth in the Hispanic population.

Mark Mather is deputy director of domestic programs at the Population Reference Bureau.
Kelvin Pollard is a senior demographer at PRB.


  1. Leif Jensen, “New Immigrant Settlements in Rural America: Problems, Prospects, and Policies,” Carsey Institute Reports on Rural America 1, no. 3 (2006).
  2. David A. McGranahan and Calvin L. Beale, “Understanding Rural Population Loss,” Rural America 17, no. 4 (2002): 10.
  3. Jensen, “New Immigrant Settlements in Rural America: Problems, Prospects, and Policies.”
  4. William Kandel and John Cromartie, “New Patterns of Hispanic Settlement in Rural America,” Rural Development Research Report 99 (2004).
  5. Counties were classified into four groups: 1) those in which the percentage-point increase in the share of Hispanics matched or exceeded the U.S. average increase in the share of Hispanics from 1990 to 2000 (3.6 percentage points); 2) those in which the percentage-point increase in the share of Hispanics matched or exceeded the U.S. average increase in the share of Hispanics from 2000 to 2006 (2.3 percentage points); 3) those with faster-than-average growth in the Hispanic population during both periods; and 4) those with slower-than-average growth in the Hispanic population during both periods.