The population of non-metropolitan counties "declined by just 4,000 from July 2014 to July 2015 after four years of population losses averaging 33,000 yearly, according to the latest county population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau," Cromartie writes. "The 2014-15 improvement in nonmetro population change coincides with rural economic recovery and suggests that this first-ever period of overall population decline (from 2010 to 2015) may be ending."
Rural population usually grows because births strongly outweigh deaths, but the Great Recession caused economic uncertainty that led to fewer births. "Areas that recently began experiencing natural decrease are found in the Northeast, South, and, especially, in and around the margins of Appalachia, expanding a large region of natural decrease extending from Pennsylvania through northern Alabama," Cromartie reports. "Population growth from natural change increased slightly since 2013, in line with a post-recession increase in births nationwide. If current trends continue, both net migration and natural increase will contribute to a recovery of population growth in rural and small-town America in the coming years."