Pew Research: Rural counties are making a comeback. Is this the beginning of a turnaround?

Stateline, a service of Pew Research, reports that things are beginning to change for the better in rural communities.

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.

We’ve written often of the urban-rural divide. Recent research has underscored the importance of manufacturing to rural economies, a fact too easily overlooked.  

The Stateline analysis – it’s short and worth reading in its entirety – points out that the rural recovery remains uneven.

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.

Urban problems – housing affordability, high costs, congestions, etc. – may play a role:

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 today’s release of census data.

The 2017 Rural America at a Glance report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture points out rural areas have a lot of comeback ahead.

Rural America encompasses 72 percent of the Nation’s land area, houses 46 million residents, and plays an essential role in the overall economy.1 Rural areas are more economically diverse than in the past, with employment reliant not only on agriculture and mining but also manufacturing, services, and trade. Rural counties with economies based on tourism and recreation maintained higher-than- average population growth rates during 2010-16. For rural areas as a whole, employment has increased modestly since 2011 and median incomes are rising once again. Infrastructure investments, like expanding broadband internet access, could improve economic performance and contribute to quality of life through more robust delivery of education, healthcare, public safety, and other services.

While rural America shows signs of a strengthening economy, many rural areas face unique challenges that place them at a competitive disadvantage rela- tive to more urban areas. Overall, the rural population is shrinking for the first time on record, due to several factors, including long-term outmigration of young adults, fewer births, increased mortality among working-age adults, and an aging population. Also, reclassification of fast-growing counties from rural to urban (nonmetro to metro) due to urbanization generally means the remaining rural counties have lower population growth potential and fewer avenues to economic vitality.

Rural employment has not returned to its pre-recession level, and job growth since 2011 has been well below the urban growth rate. Median incomes remain below those of urban areas, and rural poverty rates are higher…

A “return to population dispersal” would be welcome. A trend to watch.