The number of people living in nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) counties now stands at 46.2 million--15 percent of U.S. residents spread across 72 percent of the land area of the U.S.* Nonmetro population growth rates have been lower than in metro areas since the mid-1990s and the gap widened considerably in recent years. ERS tracks demographic change in nonmetro areas and conducts research to help explain the changing geography of migration, the aging of the population, and the relationship between population change and the socioeconomic well-being of rural and small-town residents.
- Between April 2010 and July 2012, nonmetro counties as a whole declined in population, most likely for the first time. Even if temporary, this small but historic shift highlights a growing demographic challenge facing many regions across rural and small-town America, as population growth from natural change (births minus deaths) is no longer large enough to counter net migration losses when they occur.
- Population change is very uneven across rural and small-town America. While 1,261 nonmetro counties lost population during 2010-12, 230 nonmetro counties experienced rates of population growth above the national rate of 1.7 percent.
- Nonmetro population growth from net migration peaked in 2006, then declined precipitously and shifted geographically in response to rising unemployment, housing-market challenges, energy sector developments, and other factors. Historically, suburban expansion and migration to scenic, retirement-recreation destinations have been primary drivers of rural demographic change, but for the time being at least, their influence has considerably weakened.
*An error in the nonmetro population estimate (previously 45 million) was corrected on May 13, 2013, to reflect the actual estimate of 46.2 million.