Rural counties are making a comeback, census data shows

A farm near Norwood, N.C. | Christine T. Nguyen | The North State Journal


WASHINGTON, D.C. — Some long-declining small towns and farming and manufacturing counties are adding people as population growth in large cities cools, according to a Stateline analysis of census estimates released Thursday.

“This seems to be the beginning of a return to population dispersal after a decade or so of clustering into cities and the biggest metropolitan areas,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. Steady improvement in the economy and recovering housing markets may be prompting employers and job seekers to look again at areas that were growing before the Great Recession — suburbs, exurbs and small towns, Frey said.

Rural areas, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as counties outside cities and their suburbs, gained population between 2016 and 2017 for the first time since 2010. They grew by about 33,000 residents nationwide, after losing more than 15,000 residents the year before.

One of those growing areas is Jackson County, Ga., a rural county that is convenient to Atlanta and Athens, where farm equipment manufacturing and distribution center jobs have helped fuel a population increase of more than 2,500, almost 4 percent, after a population loss as recently as 2012. In the years since, the county’s population growth has been on a steady upward trend. The county added 428 people in 2013 and 1,603 people in 2016, leading up to this year’s larger boost.

“There’s a good bit of growth here. Things are finally starting to heat up,” said Jackson County Commissioner Tom Crow, who has a family farm where he raises catfish and evergreen trees. Foreclosures caused most of the population loss earlier in the decade, Crow said, but now those homes are occupied again, and hundreds of new homes are being built every year.

Heavily agricultural areas also have started growing in the last two years after years of declines. Those areas likely still have fewer jobs but may be attractive to people looking for low-cost areas to retire or cut costs, said Doug Farquhar, program director for rural development at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Population decline has hit most rural areas hard since 2010. States such as Nebraska and Kansas have tried tax incentives to attract movers. Many small towns have had to cut back services or deliver them in combination with neighboring towns as the number of taxpayers has dwindled.

John Cromartie, a USDA geographer, said he had expected the census numbers to show that rural population loss had slowed, but he was surprised at the increase. Cromartie has documented the six-year trend of population loss in rural areas.

It’s the bigger rural counties, those with a town of at least 10,000 people, which have turned the corner fastest.

Those counties as a group grew by almost 40,000 or about 0.1 percent, while smaller counties continued to lose population, though at a much lower rate than last year. The smallest counties as a group lost about 6,100 people, down from annual losses of more than 50,000 between 2012 and 2015.

At the same time, growth is beginning to moderate in the most urban counties. After leading the nation’s population growth for a decade, with annual growth of more than a million, growth in those counties dropped back to about 900,000 between 2015 and 2016 and to a little more than 700,000 for the period covered in the census data.

Some urban counties lost population between 2016 and 2017. Cook County, which includes Chicago, lost more than 20,000 residents, its largest loss since 2010. The counties that include Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Detroit and Brooklyn also shed residents between 2016 and 2017.

Cook County, where population has dropped for three straight years, is actually undergoing a boom in apartment construction, up 61 percent between 2015 and 2017, said Ed Zotti, an urban planning consultant at the Chicago Central Area Committee, a coalition of businesses and nonprofits.

“Downtown Chicago housing has been experiencing an extended boom, driven by rising downtown employment,” Zotti said. But the city’s black population is in long-term decline, he said, which is likely to offset gains in population.

Alameda County, home of Oakland, Berkeley and other communities across the bay from San Francisco, had the nation’s biggest increase last year in multifamily housing, according to census building permit data.

The booming regional economy in the Bay Area is driving more demand for housing in Oakland and other Alameda County cities, said Darin Ranelletti, Oakland’s deputy director for planning and building.

According to the Stateline analysis, counties such as Alameda that are on the fringes of large metro areas added about 825,000 new residents between 2016 and 2017.

Stateline is an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.