(May 2006) A bright light always seems to be shining on demographic trends in urban areas, with researchers tracking each up-or-down trend in migration, income, housing, and race and ethnicity. But with the decade now more than half over, it’s time to take another look at what is going on in rural America, which is experiencing a remarkable diversity of demographic change as well.

Rural America contains over 75 percent of the land area and 17 percent of the U.S. population. For much of the 20th century, most rural communities experienced population loss—millions of rural residents left for opportunities in booming cities. The numbers of rural residents who moved to cities varied from decade to decade, but their destinations did not.

This rural-to-urban trend began to reverse in the 1970s, when rural population gains exceeded those in urban areas. In the 1980s, gains in rural areas waned. In the early 1990s, rural populations rebounded. A slowdown once again appeared in the later 1990s.

Since 2001, rural migration and population gains have again turned up, although the gains remain modest compared to those of the early 1990s.

Uneven Growth in Rural Areas

Patterns of population change are surprisingly diverse. In the vast rural heartland of the Great Plains, for instance, hundreds of rural farming counties had many more people living in them in 1900 than they do today. In contrast, in areas endowed with natural and recreational amenities or near cities, the recent sustained population gains—fueled by urban-to-rural migration—strain the social and physical infrastructure of communities.

A variety of factors have contributed to the growth of some rural areas. Technological innovations in communications and transportation have given people more flexibility to work away from the office. And the economies of scale and geographic proximity that had long provided a significant competitive advantage to locating in an urban core have been eroded by congestion, high housing costs and population densities, land shortages, and high labor costs. Surveys also consistently reveal that many Americans prefer to live in smaller places that are close to, but not in, urban areas.

Selective deconcentration describes the unevenness of these recent rural population trends: movement toward centers of moderate size and density, whether in metropolitan or rural areas. Gains have been greatest in the fringes of metropolitan areas and in rural areas that are proximate to metropolitan areas, that include small cities, and that contain natural and recreational amenities. In contrast, gains have been smallest in the heavily populated core counties of large metropolitan areas and in remote and thinly populated rural areas.

Rebounding Diminishes

Regional data from 1990 and 2004 show that rural population growth rates diminished in all regions of the country over the period. The differences were extremely modest in the Northeast, but the Midwest saw the most dramatic decline—from modest population gains in the 1990s to minimal gains in 2000-2004 (see figure). In the South and West, population gains were considerably larger, but still diminished from the levels of the 1990s.

Population Change by U.S. Region, 1990-2004

Source: U.S. Census 1990-2000 and FSCPE 2004.

Though nonmetropolitan America remains less diverse than urban areas, recent minority population gains suggest rising diversity there. The Hispanic population grew fastest in rural areas. Non-Hispanic white growth rates are minimal and continue to slow precipitously. African American growth rates are also modest. Immigration to nonmetropolitan areas is on the upswing and immigrants are dispersing more widely.

Outdated and Still Current Stereotypes

Popular images of rural America are often based on outdated stereotypes that equate rural areas with farming. Though farming remains important in hundreds of counties, rural America is now very diverse. The proportion of the rural labor force employed in manufacturing is nearly double that in agriculture. Many rural areas have also now become thriving centers of recreation and retirement.

Unfortunately, some historical images of rural America remain true. Rural child poverty rates are higher than for urban children of every racial and ethnic group, and the highest poverty rates are in the most rural places. The gap between urban and rural child poverty has also widened since the late 1990s.

In addition, a significantly higher proportion of poor families in rural areas include adults who are both married and working but unable to make enough to lift their families out of poverty. Access to health care also remains much more constrained than in urban centers. The higher fatality rates in rural areas for infants, young adults, middle-aged adults, and victims of motor vehicle accidents is a sober reminder that where you live sometimes determines whether you live.

What Policymakers Need to Consider

The patterns of demographic change in rural America may be complex, but their impact is not. We see it in persistent poverty and diminished community capacity; in declining rural communities; and in strained infrastructure, pressed institutions, and rising housing costs in growing communities. As policymakers consider responses to these issues, it is critical that rural constituencies have a seat at the table. Poverty, health care, sprawl, and environmental protection policies all could benefit from the rural perspective. Initiatives that work well in urban areas may not be appropriate for rural areas. Comprehensive policies fully cognizant of the special needs of rural communities may serve to mitigate the social, economic, and physical isolation that remains a problem in many rural communities; to target the investment critical to facilitate growth in thriving rural areas; and to cushion the effects of population loss in other communities.

This article is adapted from “Demographic Trends in Rural and Small Town America,”Carsey Institute Reports on Rural America 1, no. 1 (2006), available online at www.carseyinstitute.unh.edu/documents/Demographics_complete_file.pdf. In 1999, Kenneth Johnson wrote a report for the Population Reference Bureau’s PRB Reports on America, “The Rural Rebound.”


Kenneth Johnson is a professor of sociology at Loyola University-Chicago, specializing in U.S. demographic trends.