Rural Lifestyle Market - Growth
After years of decline, rural America recently started to add population to its counties, but the numbers are still not meaningful enough to reverse previous losses. While immigrants are spurring growth in rural areas, younger generations leaving due to a lack of opportunity and the devastation caused by the opioid crisis are some of the barriers hindering progress. The following information presents insights about the current growth of rural America.
The State of Rural America
- According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the decline in the rural population is starting to reverse. In 2016-2017 rural counties added population due to an increase in net migration. That change, however, did not offset the losses in previous years.
- Fifty-eight percent of rural counties showed positive changes in net migration between 2016-17. However, low-density remote areas saw a decrease in net migration, mostly due to job losses related to oil and gas production. Other regions, particularly eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, endured the opioid epidemic and its effects.
- Poverty rates dropped from 2013 to 2018 for all race/ethnicity groups in rural areas. Gains among Native Americans and Hispanics are balancing population losses among Whites (still the majority by far) and Blacks.
- The aging population presents a problem, as rural areas continue to attract retirees while losing younger generations. Nineteen percent of the rural population is 65 or older (vs. 15% in urban areas), 85% of the counties where more than 20% of the population is 65 or older are in rural regions.
Differences Between Counties
- According to the USDA, rural America embraces a diverse set of nonmetropolitan counties, from those adjacent to metro areas to isolated ones. Nonmetro counties account for 46.1 million residents or 14.1% of the overall population, as of July 2018.
- In 2010, the rural population was 46.3 million, which indicates a 0.4% decline. The period between 2010-2016 defined this decline, as rural settings lost 260,000 residents. The period between 2016 – 2018 saw a reverse in the trend, with nonmetro counties adding around 54,000 residents.
- The decrease is mostly due to a disparity between natural changes (births vs. deaths) and net outmigration (people moving out of communities more than people are moving in). In the period between 2010-2018, there was a population gain of 272,000 due to natural changes but a loss of 478,000 from net outmigration.
- Completely rural, nonadjacent counties got hit the hardest, with a 2% decrease. Overall less urban counties endured losses between 1% to 2%. Interestingly, more urban but not adjacent counties saw a more significant population increase than those adjacent to metropolitan areas.
Official Definitions may not Reflect the Lifestyle
- According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 60% of U.S. adults who view themselves as “rural” are living in areas classified as urban. Three in four who say they live in small towns are living in metro areas according to official definitions.
- Research suggests that some official definitions create an illusion that rural areas are dying by reclassifying counties as soon as they start to grow, even if it doesn’t reflect the lifestyle of the community. As one recent study discovered, part of the population loss reported in rural America may be due to the changes in the way the Office of Management and Budget classify the counties, as opposed to real changes in the area or lifestyle.
- Moreover, 130 counties have mostly or entirely rural populations but are located within the largest metropolitan areas due to differences in how the Census and the Office of Management and Budget define rural. The first uses population density to determine rural areas, while the Office of Management and Budget defines them by market areas and commuting zones.
- Bracken County in Kentucky, for instance, is classified as a metropolitan area, even though it has 8,488 people in 209 square miles, meaning a population density of 40 people per square mile. Bracken is classified by the USDA ERS’s Rural-Urban Continuum Codes as a “1”, the same as New York City.
- Immigrants are accelerating population growth in rural areas. Twenty percent of growing rural areas owe their growth to immigrants mitigating the loss of population.
- Immigrants accounted for 37% of overall rural growth from 2000 to 2018, helping revitalized towns and economies as they balance the elderly population and foster cultural diversity.
- One study analyzed the rural western counties and unveiled that during the past 35 years, 90% of the counties saw a growth in minority populations. Furthermore, two out five had the population decrease slowed or reversed due to the expansion of minority populations.
- Nineteen percent of the rural counties grew only because of the rise in the minority population, especially those born in foreign countries. This trend is expected to change and disrupt some areas, as the social diversity injected to an otherwise stagnant, aging community is due to create challenges in counties unwilling to incorporate ethnic and racial diversity into the economy, politics and educational system.
Younger Generations are Leaving
- The median age in rural areas is 43, as opposed to 36 in urban areas, a result of young people leaving rural areas to pursue better education and economic opportunities. Some believe “young people are now rural America’s most precious declining resource.”
- Not only young people are not attracted to the most common types of jobs available in rural areas, such as mining and farming, but technological advancements are also decreasing the number of employment choices.
- In the past, the youth could rely on traditional farms or mills for job opportunities, but as the industry evolves and farms outsource and automate their processes, the demand for labor is shrinking and there aren’t enough opportunities in other areas to replace these jobs.
- A 2018 survey conducted by NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health discovered that most young people leave their rural communities for job-related reasons (65%).
- About 43% of parents in such communities said their child had moved somewhere else (not including time spent at college, trade school or military). The majority said they moved to a city (61%), while 21% said it was to another rural area.
- This is happening in other countries as well, for similar reasons. For instance, in the UK, young people are leaving small towns because they don’t have the resources or incentives to make them stay.
- The Prince's Countryside Fund suggests that a way to reverse this trend is to prioritize affordable housing, transport, training, improve employment conditions with the involvement of the private sector.
- Some communities may have created the problem for themselves by developing a filter system, in which teachers, parents and other influential adults pick and nurture the young people they believe are destined to leave and neglect the individuals most likely to stay or return.
Opioid Crisis Relates to the Aging and Loss of Population
- The opioid crisis led to an increase in mortality rates for middle-aged adults in rural America, which is accelerating the rural aging population since the rates continue to decrease for older residents. The most affected regions are seeing a shrinking community, as 14 out of the 15 counties with the highest opioid prescribing rates in 2017 were rural counties.
- Drug addiction became such a problem that a recent survey conducted by the NPR and Harvard discovered that drug addiction is the number one problem in rural communities, according to the population, beating economic concerns.
- Fifty-seven percent say opioids are a serious problem to their local communities (37% say it’s a severe problem), and 48% say it has gotten worse in the past five years (only 5% say it has gotten better).
- Respondents also believe that is the number one urgent health problem facing their community (25%), way ahead of cancer (12%) or access to healthcare (11%). Nearly half (49%) say they personally known someone, such as a friend or family member, who has struggled with opioid addiction.
- The CDC examined opioid prescriptions during the 2014-2017 period and discovered that the percentage of patients prescribed an opioid in rural areas was higher than for those in urban areas. Patients in rural settings were 87% more likely to receive an opioid prescription.