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Image: Rural Economy & Population

Shifting Geography of Population Change

Opportunities for population growth and economic expansion vary widely from one nonmetro county to the next, and a comparison of maps for two time periods (2003-07 and 2010-14) shows that new regional patterns of growth and decline have emerged in recent years. The maps show rates of population growth for all counties, metro and nonmetro. Urbanized areas (shown in dark gray) are at the center of metro areas, and nonmetro counties are those that are some distance removed, depending on the size of the metro area.

Geographic patterns of population growth that held sway for decades can be seen on the map for 2003-07:

  • Population loss affected most nonmetro counties in the Great Plains from eastern Montana to west Texas, extending into Corn Belt areas of Iowa, Illinois, and parts of other Midwestern States.
  • Population loss also occurred in areas of relatively high poverty in the southern Coastal Plains from eastern Texas to Virginia, and in Appalachia from eastern Kentucky through upstate New York.
  • Rapid population gains in nonmetro counties proximate to large and medium-sized metro areas reflected long-term suburbanization trends that transformed hundreds of rural areas and small towns. Such nonmetro regions include those proximate to Atlanta in northern Georgia, Raleigh-Durham in central North Carolina, Minneapolis-St. Paul in southern Minnesota, and Denver in central Colorado.
  • Rapid growth was also concentrated in recreation areas with attractive scenery and retirement destinations, such as throughout the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Coast regions, in the Ozarks and southern Appalachia, and along the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic coasts.
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Historic geographic shifts in population growth can be seen on the map showing population change since 2010.

  • Nonmetro population change switched from growth to decline in 11 Eastern States between 2003-07 and 2010-14. For example, most metro counties in South Carolina maintained above average population growth through the housing crisis and recession, but nonmetro areas switched from 2.1 percent growth during 2003-07 to -0.36 percent decline since 2010. Extensive areas of population decline also emerged along the North Carolina-Virginia border, in southern Ohio, and throughout New England.
  • Population growth slowed considerably in the Mountain West for the first time in decades, affecting numerous counties in Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and elsewhere.
  • Spurred by an energy boom, large sections of the northern Great Plains turned around decades of population decline. Other nonmetro regions, such as in eastern Texas and parts of rural Pennsylvania, experienced population gains from energy-related job growth, but the demographic impact has been more visible in sparsely settled regions such as the Williston Basin in western North Dakota and eastern Montana.
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Urban population size, metro proximity, attractive scenery, and recreation potential have historically contributed to nonmetro population growth. For the time being at least, their influence has weakened. Over the last 4 years, suburban and exurban population growth has contracted considerably—for the first time since World War II—affecting not only outlying metro counties but nonmetro counties adjacent to metro areas as well.

  • The housing mortgage crisis slowed suburban development and contributed to an historic shift within metro regions, with outlying counties now growing at a slower rate than central counties.
  • Similarly, nonmetro counties adjacent to metro areas grew rapidly from exurban development for decades, with many hundreds of counties growing large enough to be reclassified as metropolitan. These types of counties declined in population for the first time as a group during 2010-14. The rate of decline was marginal (23,000 fewer people), but the drop from 2003-07 (when over 900,000 people were added) was considerably more significant than the drop in nonadjacent counties.

This period may simply be an interruption in suburbanization or it could turn out to be the end of a major demographic regime that has transformed small towns and rural areas throughout the country for decades.

Chart data
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Long-term population growth from steadily booming recreation, tourism, and retirement economies was interrupted as well. During the 1990s and early 2000s, rapid in-migration to nonmetro regions with mountains, lakes, moderate climates, and other natural amenities generated jobs in construction and the service sector, which attracted additional migrants.

  • Population growth in counties with recreation-based employment has dropped from a rate of nearly 5.1 percent during 2003-07 to only 1.4 percent since 2010.
  • While this represents a dramatic drop in population growth, it still leaves recreation counties growing faster than other types of nonmetro counties.   

Along with farming-dependent counties that were already growing slowly, manufacturing-dependent counties switched from population growth in 2003-07 to decline in 2010-14.

  • Widespread job losses in rural manufacturing caused by the recent economic recession, increased global competition, and technological changes contributed to the nonmetro population downturn since 2010, especially in the eastern parts of the country.
  • Population in farming-dependent counties, which are smaller in population and concentrated in the Great Plains and Corn Belt, declined as a whole despite energy-related job growth that occurred in many such counties.
  • Both types of counties have been particularly affected by an aging population that contributes to slower population growth from natural change.
Chart data
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Last updated: Friday, June 12, 2015

For more information contact: John Cromartie