America’s Rural-Urban Divide is Growing

Rural populations are shrinking as Americans migrate to cities and suburbs. As a result, rural areas are mobilizing to grow and convince residents to stay.

Not many people live in rural Renville County, Minn., home to a scattering of farming communities along the Minnesota River. Far removed from any sprawling metropolis, its population has gradually dwindled for decades.

County Commissioner Bob Fox, like other officials in rural areas, is accustomed to seeing young adults move away. As families continue to leave for growing metropolitan areas, and as rural towns age, he wants to ensure the county still thrives. “We hope to provide opportunities for people that like this way of life,” he says.

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Most U.S. counties are rural, and recent Census estimates indicate the majority of them are losing population as Americans migrate to cities and suburbs. Two-thirds of counties that the Census considers majority-rural based on population density lost residents last year. By contrast, only 31 percent of more urban counties registered population declines.

This divide is most apparent across the Great Plains and rural Appalachia, which experienced some of the largest rural population losses in recent years, along with Michigan and pockets of the upper Midwest. The Census Bureau estimates Renville County’s population dropped 2 percent since 2010 to about 15,400.

Part of this stems from Americans flocking to urban centers. But much of rural America’s shrinking population has to do with natural decreases, says Ken Johnson, a senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Rural counties are home to older white residents whose fertility rates are lower than other demographic groups. Many counties reached a tipping point in 2012 when annual deaths surpassed births. In all, 1,135 counties recorded a natural decrease -- the most in U.S. history. “With the coming of the recession, the tipping point was accelerated because birth rates dropped,” Johnson says. And now that natural decreases started, they’ll likely continue in these areas for years.

But it’s not all bad news for rural America. While many areas took their hits during the Great Recession, agriculture largely sustained rural communities and newer industries, such as organic foods, cropped up. “When you look at the economic output of these counties, they’re actually growing,” says Matt Chase, the National Association of Counties’ executive director.

However, there just aren’t as many jobs as before in many farming communities. The mechanization of commodity agriculture -- a major driver of rural economies -- pushed down the number of available jobs. Accordingly, most rural counties will find it difficult to reverse years of population declines, but this doesn’t mean they can’t improve their quality of life.

Chase says broadband and access to airports are top priorities for rural counties. Well maintained roads and bridges are also essential for businesses wanting to curb transportation costs. But these investments often prove difficult for rural local governments, Chase says, with their aging populations and declining tax bases.

In Minnesota, Fox is working on a project to lay the foundation for a fiber network linking residents to high-speed Internet. Renville County also plans to expand a freight rail line and build a solid waste transfer center, further boosting the region’s economy. For each project, officials are working with other jurisdictions or private companies to achieve results that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. “It’s using taxpayers’ money wisely and producing better results by partnering with your neighbors,” Fox says.

This type of collaboration is needed if rural communities are to grow, says Chuck Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute. Instead of thinking about two- or three-county areas, governments must set policies encompassing much larger regions -- rural areas must better align themselves with nearby urban hubs and vice versa. “We need to rethink how we govern,” Fluharty says. “The old feudal silos have to go away.” Whether it’s economic clusters, distributed food and water systems, or tax sharing, there are ample opportunities for regional partnerships.

Although rare, some rural counties have seen their population climb. Loudoun County, Va., for example, experienced rapid population gains with its proximity to Washington, D.C., expanding from about 57,000 residents in 1980 to more than 300,000 today. In recent years, some of the fastest growing rural areas can be found in communities wedged between Raleigh and Fayetteville, N.C. Neighboring Johnston and Harnett counties added the most residents of any majority-rural county in the U.S. since 2010, according to Census estimates.

Some rural counties boasting recreational opportunities, such as ski resorts in the West, have also fared well. Other regions benefited from a natural gas boom or recent manufacturing growth.

It’s for these reasons that rural counties can’t all be treated the same -- both their demographics and economies vary greatly, says Fluharty. “There are amazing dynamics going on from central cities to remote rural areas.”

View our interactive map with data for each county

Brian Peteritas is a GOVERNING contributor.