Depopulation in Rural America: Demographic Lessons for Aging Societies

Daniel Lichter, Cornell University
Kenneth Johnson, University of New Hampshire

We examine the emergence and uneven spatial distribution of depopulation across U.S. counties over the 1980-to-2010 period. Depopulation--sometimes referred to as "population implosion"--is distinguished by absolute population decline and is a function of the protracted out-migration, low and declining fertility, and population aging. Depopulation increasingly characterizes growth and decline processes in rural areas, both in the United States and Europe. It is symptomatic of fundamental changes in the local demographic structure (especially population aging) which eventually drains demographic resilience and, ultimately, the prospect of long term economic equilibrium and population growth. Our findings, based on data from the U.S. decennial Censuses and local-area data on fertility and mortality, suggest that chronic population decline has been both protracted and substantial in many parts of rural America. Indeed, nearly one-half of all nonmetropolitan counties reached their population peaks by 1950, in contrast to just 13 percent of metropolitan counties. Since 1990, over one-third of rural counties experienced depopulation; natural increase no longer offsets chronic out-migration of young people of reproductive age. Our study highlights important new findings and provides lessons about the underlying dynamics of depopulation in a period of low fertility and unprecedented population aging in the United States and other developed countries.

Depopulation provides an unusually clearindicator of local demographic and economic vitality, now and in the future.  In the United States and other developed countries, the prevalence, timing, andmagnitude of depopulation have unfolded unevenly across geographic space.  Italso reflects spatially disparate interactions among the three underlying demographiccomponents of population change: fertility, mortality, and migration. Yet,despite its growing demographic policy significance, little if any research hashighlighted its demographic reach across the United States.  Using recentEuropean studies as a template, our study shows how protracted rural populationlosses are symptomatic of fundamental changes in the local population structure,which ultimately diminish the prospect of demographic and economic growth.  

To be sure, depopulation has been evidentin some rural areas for decades, but our results highlight its unprecedented demographicgrip across America’s counties. Our goals are to:  (1) highlight the fact thatdepopulation has accelerated and become increasingly widespread across rural America;(2) show that depopulation is the result of complex patterns of chronic out-migrationand growing natural decrease (i.e., the excess of deaths over births); and (3) drawgeneral lessons about depopulation and its demographic components during aperiod of continuing urbanization and population aging in the United States andEurope.

Dataand Methods

We use counties as the unit of analysis.They are appropriate for this purpose because they have historically stableboundaries and they are a basic unit for reporting fertility, mortality andcensus data.    Information on population, populationchange, and age structures come from the decennial censuses and from theNational Center for Health Statistics. Counties are also classified by theirmetropolitan status using data from the U.S. Office of Management and Budgetand a typology developed by the Economic Research Service of the U.S.Department of Agriculture.


            Ourpreliminary findings suggest that population decline has been both protractedand substantial in parts of rural America, but far less prevalent inmetropolitan areas. Some 13 percent of the nonmetropolitancounties reached their population peak by 1900 and another 36 percent did sobetween 1910 and 1950. In contrast, in present day metropolitan counties, itwas 5 percent by 1900 and 8 percent between 1910 and 1950. Thus by 1950, nearlyhalf of all nonmetropolitan counties had already reached their maximumpopulation compared to just 13 percent of metro counties. Though many countiesare past their population peaks, nearly half of all U.S. counties had a largerpopulation in 2010 than in any previous decade.  This includes fewer that 35percent of rural counties, but nearly 75 percent of urban counties.

            Just as when a county reachedits maximum population varied, so too did how far populations have fallen fromthat peak population. More than 17 percent of all rural counties retained lessthan 50 percent of their peak population in 2010. In contrast, just 1.2 percentof metropolitan counties had experienced such staggering losses. An additional19 percent of rural counties lost between 25 and 50 percent peak population, comparedto just 5.4 percent of metropolitan counties.

            There is considerablevariation in when a U.S. county reached its maximum population.More than 320 counties reached their maximum population by 1900. Many of themare concentrated along the Iowa-Missouri and Nebraska-Kansas border. Thoughthere are also clusters in the southeast and in the coal fields of WestVirginia. Another 715 counties reached their maximum population between 1910and 1940. Many of these counties are also concentrated in the Great Plains,though there are also clusters in the northern Great Lakes, in the interior ofthe southeast and in parts of Texas. Another 210 counties reached theirpopulation maximums between 1950 and 1970. Many of them were in the northernindustrial belt or in the Appalachians, though there are cases in western Texasand Oklahoma as well. Though depopulation is widespread, nearly half (1,544) ofall U.S. counties had a larger population in 2010 than in any previous decade.  

Analytical Plans

            Our preliminary analysisunderscores how widespread depopulation across America. As we continue our work,we will examine how migration, births and deaths produce depopulation. Weexpect to find a complex interaction between these components of change and arefully cognizant of the fact that the process may play out differently acrosssub-regions. Our approach provides new lessons about the prevalenceand dynamics of depopulation in the United States and other aging population.And, in so doing, our analyses help us to better understand theimplications of complex patterns among fertility, mortality and migration overa protracted period of urbanization and rural decline.



Presented in Session 1224: Internal Migration and Urbanization