(April 2004) New county population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show rapid population growth in U.S. metropolitan areas, and slow growth or population losses in much of small-town and rural America. Between 2000 and 2003, the metropolitan United States grew by 3.8 percent, compared with 1.6 percent in small-town counties and 0.5 percent in rural counties.1 Based on current rates of population growth, the metropolitan United States is projected to grow by 12 percent during the 2000-2010 decade, compared with 5 percent for small towns and only 2 percent for rural counties.2

These trends are not new. For several decades, families have migrated from rural areas to cities and suburbs in search of better jobs and improved educational opportunities.3 Although the decline in farming has been a factor in population losses — especially in the Midwest — declines in fishing, mining, oil production, and ranching in some areas have also contributed to high rates of rural out-migration (see Table 1).

Table 1
Small-Town and Rural Counties With the Greatest Population Losses, 2000 to 2003

County or county equivalent
Percent change
in population, 2000-2003
of income
Lake and Peninsula Borough, Alaska
Treasure County, Montana
Stonewall County, Texas
oil production
Lander County, Nevada
Bristol Bay Borough, Alaska
Greenlee County, Arizona
Yakutat City and Borough, Alaska
Hidalgo County, New Mexico
Esmeralda County, Nevada
Clark County, Idaho

Note: Kalawao County Hawaii, which had a 12 percent loss in population, is excluded from this list because fewer than 200 people lived there in 2000.
Source: Population Reference Bureau, analysis of county population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, accessed online at http://eire.census.gov/popest/data/counties.php (April 20, 2004). Information on the major source of income is based on research on individual counties.

Not all rural counties have lost population. Between 2000 and 2003, Flagler County, Fla. — a coastal county near Daytona and Jacksonville — grew by an astounding 25 percent; Rains County, Texas, an exurb of Dallas, increased by 19 percent; Teton County, Idaho grew by 18 percent; Lyon County, Nev., a retirement destination, grew by 16 percent; and Wasatch County, Utah, an exurb of Salt Lake City, grew by 15 percent. Nearly all of the fastest growing rural and micropolitan counties — with the exception of Hanson County, S.D.; Monroe County, Pa.; and Nantucket County, Mass. — were located in the Southern or Western United States. Rural population growth in the South and West has been fueled by increasing levels of domestic and international migration to amenity-rich rural counties in those regions. Many of the fastest-growing rural counties offer affordable housing and small-town charm, yet are located within commuting distance of one or more large, metropolitan areas.

For more isolated rural counties, retaining young people and attracting new families is a serious challenge. Between 2000 and 2003, nearly three out of five rural counties (58 percent) lost population, compared with only one in six counties (17 percent) in metropolitan America (see Table 2). The future sustainability of many small towns and rural communities depends on a turnaround in these population trends.

Table 2
U.S. Counties With Population Losses, by Metropolitan Area Status, 2000 to 2003

Total counties Counties with population losses

Source: Population Reference Bureau, analysis of county population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, accessed online at http://eire.census.gov/popest/data/counties.php (April 20, 2004).

Mark Mather is director of the Rural Families Data Center at PRB. Jean D’Amico is a research associate in the Domestic Programs department at PRB.


  1. In this article, micropolitan areas are referred to as “small towns.” Micropolitan areas, as defined by the Office of Management and Budget, include urban clusters of 10,000 to 50,000 people, the county where the urban cluster is located, and adjacent counties linked by commuting ties. Metropolitan areas are based on an urban core of at least 50,000 people. Any county that is not in a metropolitan or micropolitan area is considered nonmetropolitan (or “rural”).
  2. Population Reference Bureau, extrapolation of county population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
  3. For more information about these trends and their implications, see William O’Hare and Kenneth Johnson, “Child Poverty in Rural America,” PRB Reports on America 4, no. 1 (2004).