Most of America’s rural areas are doomed to decline

Since the Great Recession, most of the nation’s rural counties have struggled to recover lost jobs and retain their people. The story is markedly different in the nation’s largest urban communities.

I’m writing from Iowa, where every four years presidential hopefuls swoop in to test how voters might respond to their various ideas for fixing the country’s problems.

But what to do about rural economic and persistent population decline is the one area that has always confounded them all.

The facts are clear and unarguable. Most of the nation’s smaller urban and rural counties are not growing and will not grow.

Let’s start with my analysis of U.S. Commerce Department data.

Metropolitan areas consist of those counties with central cities of at least 50,000, along with the surrounding counties that are economically dependent on them. They make up 36% of all counties. Between 2008, the cusp of the Great Recession, and 2017, they enjoyed nearly 99% of all job and population growth.

What remained of job and population growth was divided among the 21% of counties that are called micropolitans, which have midsized cities with between 10,000 and 50,000 residents, and the remaining 42% of counties that are rural.

Nationally, 71% of all metropolitan counties grew between 2008 and 2017, but more than half of the remaining micropolitan and rural counties did not grow or shrank in population.

Regional breakdown

Regional outcomes were also sharply divergent. The West and the South combined had 72% and 82% of the job and population gains, respectively, while the Northeast and the Midwest split the remainder.

Economic and population declines among micropolitan and rural areas were especially strong in the Northeast and the Midwest. Eighty-seven percent of the micropolitan counties contracted in the Northeast, as did 85% of their rural counties. In the Midwest, 61% of the micropolitans contracted, as did 81% of the rural counties.

Geographically, a large fraction of the nation is struggling to simply maintain the status quo. Yes, there are many struggling metropolitan regions, but there are many more midsized and rural counties wrestling with decline.

Bringing it back home, 69 of Iowa’s 99 counties have contracted since 2010, along with 10 of its 15 micropolitan counties. This ongoing struggle of midsized counties has negative economic and social consequences. Residents in surrounding rural areas depend on them for jobs, essential services, public goods and other commercial and recreational amenities.

There is, in short, a regional ripple effect. When micropolitan counties falter, neighboring rural counties that depend on them often falter, too. This is true in Iowa and evident as well across much of the U.S.