Rural population in steep decline amid slow economic recovery, USDA study finds

? Rural areas throughout much of the United States are now shedding population at an unprecedented rate as both people and industries are concentrating in urban areas, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The latest edition of “Rural America at a Glance,” an annual report that looks at employment, population and poverty trends in rural counties, was released Thursday.

It says that since the end of the Great Recession around 2010, population declines have become widespread throughout rural America, even in the eastern United States where the rural population had been relatively stable for several decades.

“The number of nonmetro counties losing population reached (a) historic high of 1,351 during 2010-16, with a combined population loss of just under 790,000,” the report stated.

The report did not include county-specific or state-specific data.

John Cromartie, a geographer with USDA’s Economic Research Service, which published the report, presented the findings during a webinar Friday. He said that while Great Plains and Corn Belt states like Kansas have seen rural population declines for decades, “What’s new in terms of the pattern of population loss is its extension into the eastern United States.”

One of the biggest factors contributing to that trend, he said, has been a slowdown in the rate of suburbanization on the fringes of metropolitan areas.

“In the past you would see rapid growth in areas around the edges of cities like Atlanta or Nashville, Columbus or Indianapolis,” Cromartie said. “And that’s just not happening right now,”

Another factor, he said, has been the out-migration of young adults and declining birth rates among the young adult population that remains in rural America, a trend that has been occurring nationwide among that age group.

But even more surprising, he said, has been a rising mortality rate among working-age adults in rural counties.

“This is an unexpected and in many ways an unprecedented turnaround in mortality rates after a century or more of steady declines,” Cromartie said. “There are several interrelated factors that have contributed to this trend, including the rise in prescription medication abuse, especially opioids, and the more recent, related rise in heroin overdose deaths. Heart disease, cancer, other natural causes of death are also increasing.”

If those trends continue, he said, rural America is likely to see a sharp increase in what economists refer to as the “dependency ratio” — the percentage of the population who are no longer in the workforce and who depend on services such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to get along.

Still another trend affecting rural America has been the rate of economic recovery since the Great Recession.

From 2010 through 2015, the report indicated, job growth in nonmetropolitan counties has been less than half that of urban counties — 0.8 percent in rural areas versus 1.9 percent in metro areas.

If job growth in rural areas had equaled that of urban areas, there would be 850,000 more jobs in rural counties than there actually are, the report stated.

Furthermore, the report noted, agriculture and mining, which have traditionally been the economic backbone of rural economies, now account for only about 5 percent of wage and salary jobs in rural areas.

“Fifteen percent of jobs are still in manufacturing, although the share has declined rapidly since 2001,” he said. “The majority of rural jobs are now in just three service-sector industries: education and health; trade, transportation and utilities; and leisure and hospitality.”

During the 2010-2016 period, Cromartie said, only two types of rural counties saw significant population increases: those with large oil and gas reserves that benefited from an energy boom, which has since gone bust; and those with scenic or recreational assets that profited from tourism.