The number of people living in nonmetro counties remained essentially unchanged between July 2014 and July 2015, after 4 years of modest population losses. The 2014-15 improvement in rural population change coincides with a marked improvement in rural employment growth and suggests that this first-ever period of overall population decline (from 2010 to 2015) may be ending. ERS tracks demographic change in nonmetro areas and conducts research to help explain the relationship between population change and the socioeconomic well-being of rural and small-town residents.

  • The total population in nonmetro counties stood at 46.2 million in July 2015—14 percent of U.S. residents spread across 72 percent of the Nation's land area. Annual population losses averaged 33,000 per year between 2010 and 2014, but dropped to about 4,000 in 2015.

  • Population change is very uneven across rural and small-town America. Over 1,300 nonmetro counties lost population since 2010, as a group declining by nearly 650,000 people. At the same time, nonmetro counties that gained population added over 500,000 residents (see map).
  • 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. Suburban expansion and migration to scenic, retirement/recreation destinations were primary drivers of rural demographic change for several decades, but for the time being at least, their influence has considerably weakened.

  • Population growth rates in nonmetro areas have been significantly lower than in metro areas since the mid-1990s and the gap widened considerably in recent years. While annual rates of population change in nonmetro areas fell from 0.7 percent to below zero between 2006 and 2015, metro rates fell only slightly, from 1 percent to 0.9 percent.