Is Rural America Dead? The (Very) Uneven Population Geography of Rural America

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Between 2000 and 2015, the majority of rural counties in the US lost population, leading to economic struggles associated with population loss, along with the potential for political alienation. Despite wide-spread notions that rural America is down and out for the count, two recent articles demonstrate the very uneven and complex population patterns that are shaping the demography of these rural areas. In the first case, Alicia VanOrman and Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau report on how Millennials and Baby Boomers are reshaping the population geography of rural America and the unequal patterns across the country. Millennials, for instance, have been attracted to resource-rich rural areas and away from smaller metropolitan and nearby nonmetropolitan areas. In particular, energy-rich (gas and oil) counties have attracted Millennials given job opportunities. Younger adults are also moving out of counties that are reliant on manufacturing. Baby Boomers, on the other hand, are moving out of agricultural areas and are attracted to amenity rich areas that offer recreational opportunities. Many of these migrants are retirees, with in-migration increasing the demand for such things as services and housing, as well as increasing the tax base, resulting in economic growth.

The uneven geography is, in part, exemplified by Twin Falls, Idaho (population 47,468 in 2015 based on the US Census Bureau).  Rather than being faced with a declining population, Twin Falls has seen population growth faster than the national average and a low unemployment rate, in large part because of the presence of Clif Bars and Chobani yogurt, its access to transportation, a trained workforce, and its relative location. But the success of Twin Falls comes at the expense for other, smaller communities in Idaho, with rural Idaho experiencing population decline.

These differential migration patterns and growth rates point to the revitalization of some rural areas, but only those that provide some draw or reason for growth, whether because of economic or amenity/recreational opportunities. The earlier attraction of areas in North Dakota, for example, has been tempered by the drop in oil prices. For areas that are attracting older Baby Boomers, the benefit may be short lived unless they can continue to attract in-migrants, as their populations will continue to age. For other rural areas, population decline is likely to continue, creating complexity in the demographic profile of rural America.

Further Reading:

Alicia VanOrman and Mark Mather. 2017. Baby Boomers and Millennials Boost Population in Parts of Rural America. Population Reference Bureau. Report available at: http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2017/Baby-Boomers-and-Millennials.aspx

Kirk Johnson. What Decline? A Rural Hub Thrives in Idaho. The New York Times, 4 April 2017, p. A1.

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