How Major Industries Are Driving Population Shifts

Particularly during a recession, a county's ability to attract and retain residents depends largely on what industries drive its economy.
by | December 11, 2015
A truck drives near a population sign in Mulberry, Ark. (AP/Jeannie Nuss)

Like other Florida counties, Lake County experienced a population boom for several years, fueled in part by retirees. Then the Great Recession hit, and with it the growth came to a near halt. The county outside of Orlando saw its population jump 37 percent between 2000 and 2007, but in the seven years since, it has increased just under 9 percent.

Other retirement destinations experienced similar slowdowns, and the same can be said of regions relying on tourism. Likewise, counties made up of farming communities either aren’t growing or have been losing residents for the better part of the decade. Areas dependent on manufacturing have also felt population shifts as the sector expanded or contracted.

It's these types of population changes that illustrate how an area’s fate is tied to its major industries. The USDA’s Economic Research Service published updated county typology data this week, classifying counties based on their economic dependence. Using this classification scheme and the latest census estimates, we’ve identified how a few types of counties appear to be trending.

One of the clearest patterns has occurred in areas that have historically attracted large numbers of retirees. These counties, primarily located in the Sun Belt or out West, recorded annual population growth of around 3 percent in the years leading up to the recession. Over the next few years, though, population gains dropped sharply as fewer Americans could afford to retire and relocate.

The effects of the recession have started to subside in parts of these areas. This chart shows how the roughly 400 counties classified as retirement destinations are starting to regain momentum after a period of slow growth:

All Other Counties   vs Retirement Destination County

Consider St. Lucie County, Fla., one of the fastest-growing counties during the last decade. The county’s population gains slowed considerably beginning in 2008, but the most recent census estimates suggest 2014 was its strongest year since the recession began. When a new hospital opened there, it was at full capacity within a week and reportedly expects to double in size. A state veterans’ nursing home is also slated to open soon.

“Both of these show that there is a move to a growing retiree population again,” said Leslie Olson, the county’s planning director.

These totals aren’t all driven by migration, as births and deaths also play a role in pushing a county’s population up or down. Also, certain retirement hotspots didn’t experience slowdown at all during the recession. Sumter County, Fla., continues to record rapid population growth, for example, because of a large development for retirees that's expanding there.

Population shifts for counties tied to recreation are headed in a similar upward direction. These counties are found mostly along the coasts and in areas near mountain ranges or large parks, and many of their newcomers own vacation houses.

All Other Counties  vs Recreation County

“Within the last year or two, the trends have started to shift back more to traditional patterns,” said University of New Hampshire demographer Kenneth Johnson. “Recreation and retirement counties have started to pick up growth.”

By contrast, other rural areas more tied to farming have, by and large, continued to lose population for years. One reason for this is these counties are aging; the young residents often opt to move away in their 20s. Areas of the Great Plains did fare better economically than most other regions of the country during the recession, so population losses receded then. Still, the most recent data suggests farming counties are back to experiencing negative to flat population growth as a whole.

Non Farming vs Farming Counties

Population shifts in rural areas also depend in part on their proximity to urban regions. Rural counties adjacent to metro areas historically experienced spillover from the outer edges of urban areas, enabling them to grow faster than more remote areas. But the recession reversed this pattern, according to Johnson’s research, and rural counties adjacent to metro areas have incurred greater population losses since 2010.

The USDA's research service also identified counties tied to federal and state government based on  employment and earnings. Many of these counties surround state capitals and large federal installations.

For the most part, population changes for government-dependent counties have mirrored the rest of the country. They did, however, accelerate slightly during the recession and have since slowed. One reason is that much of the cutbacks the private sector made didn't start to a take a toll on federal and state employment until a few years later. Some areas may have also benefited from increases in college enrollment.

All Other Counties vs Federal/State Gov. County

Another 500 counties largely concentrated in the South and Midwest have economies more dependent on manufacturing.

While these areas aren't losing residents, overall population gains have trailed the rest of the nation. Over the past few years, annual population growth for manufacturing counties is about half that of all other counties.

All Other Counties vs Manufacturing Counties

Data notes

See documentation on county typology codes for a description of how types of counties are defined. For this report, annual percentage changes were calculated using aggregate U.S. population totals for each county type. Overlapping county typology indicators were used, meaning a county could be considered dependent on more than one industry.