Rural Populations Decline in America for the First Time in Recorded History

For the first time in history, America’s rural population has declined.

A recently concluded study from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy found that the population of rural America dropped by nearly 300,000 between 2010 and 2020. This marks a 0.06% population decline and the first decline in America’s rural population in recorded history.

The study’s head researcher and author, Kenneth Johnson, told The Hill that “actual size of the loss isn’t particularly a big deal” but “the fact that it actually happened, that rural America, as a whole lost population, reflects a significant change.

Johnson emphasized that it is important to try to analyze what this decrease means when assessing long-term demographic change.

Johnson asked, “Is it just a short-term thing, or is it a longer-term thing?”

Researchers are alarmed by this decrease, in part, because it indicates a reversal of immense growth in rural communities in recent decades.

From 2000 to 2010 there was a 1.5 million-person increase in rural population, and from 1990 to 2000 there was a 3.4 million increase.

The study posits that population increase is a consequence of the “balance” between births and deaths as well as migration patterns to and from rural areas.

Johnson’s study notes that the Great Recession of 2008 economically “froze” many American in place. Unemployment, housing debt, and a generally weak economy discouraged Americans from moving to rural parts of the country from urban areas.

It also found that rural populations, typically having older populations, experienced more deaths than births as fertility rates plummeted throughout the country.

Johnson wrote, “Natural increase [in population] declined because there were fewer births and more deaths. In 2020, fertility rates hit records lows and there were the fewest births since 1979. At the same time, deaths were at record highs because of population aging and growing deaths of despair (including from drug overdoses and suicide).”

In recent years, fentanyl overdoses have drastically increased as the synthetic opioid poured across America’s southern border. Fentanyl overdose has, in fact, become the leading cause of death among Americans ages 18-45. 

Johnson suggests that rural population loss is likely to continue. He said, “If rural outmigration is ongoing, and deaths continue to exceed births in many rural areas due to low fertility and higher mortality among the aging rural population, then population losses are likely to continue in much of rural America.”

The study concludes by stating that “the demographic changes that are reshaping nonmetropolitan areas are important to contemporary policy making intended to increase the viability of rural communities and enhance their contribution to the nation’s material, environmental, and social well-being.”