Thursday, July 28, 2011

America is less rural than ever; rural population is up, but the most rural places are losing big

The latest census numbers show rural Americans make up only 16 percent of the nation's population, a 4 percent decrease from 2000, and the lowest figure ever. The rural population is still growing, just not as fast as those of cities and suburbs, and almost half the 1,104 counties that lost population "were counties that were isolated from metropolitan areas and had small or nonexistent urban populations—the most rural areas," the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau says in a new report.

"Some of the most isolated rural areas face a major uphill battle, with a broad area of the country emptying out," Mark Mather, associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau, a research group in Washington, D.C. told Hope Yen of The Associated Press. "Many rural areas can't attract workers because there aren't any jobs, and businesses won't relocate there because there aren't enough qualified workers. So they are caught in a downward spiral." (Read more)

Changes in rural and urban population definitions may also affect population numbers. "People can become urban overnight without moving an inch, just because a change in the definition of a place from nonmetro to metro," the Yonder notes. In the 2010 Census, urban areas were defined as areas of 2,500 people or more with at least 1,500 residing outside institutional group quarters; rural encompasses everything else. The criteria to define "urban" changed from 2000. To see a comparison of the 2000 and 2010 criteria for urban areas, click here.

The Census Bureau doesn't yet have state-by-state breakdowns of rural and urban population, but the 2009 estimates as calculated by the Daily Yonder, which uses a middle ground of "exurban," show Vermont as the most rural state, at at 66.54 percent of its population. Montana (64.6), Mississippi (55.6); South Dakota (53.53) and North Dakota (51.1) round out the top five. Below the majority-rural line, there's a dropoff to West Virginia at 44.3 percent. Then come Iowa (43.3), Kentucky (42.2), Maine (41.4), Nebraska (41.3), Wyoming (41.2) percent and Arkansas ()39.6). For the Yonder's spreadsheet of all states, click here. The "exurban" category can make a big difference; by the Census Bureau's last count, Maine was 60 percent rural, second only to Vermont at 61 percent. The Yonder's definition of "exurban" is counties where approximately half the people live in rural settings. Many of those are in metropolitan areas.

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