Sunday, April 21, 2019

Rural America is growing......but there's a caveat

In the years following beginning of the the Great Recession, much of rural America dealt with population loss. There is evidence however that this trend has started to reverse itself. For the second straight year, rural America has recorded population growth, largely driven by net positive in-migration. The growth is small, just 37,000, but it represents the reversal of the negative trajectory that dominated the early-mid 2010s. 

There is, however, a caveat to this finding. The counties that grew the most were either adjacent to metropolitan areas or home to recreational opportunities that would attract migrants, especially retirees. The most isolated rural pockets still recorded losses. As this map from The Daily Yonder illustrates, these population losses hit the most impoverished and disadvantaged areas of the country the hardest. For example, Appalachia and the Black Belt South are both home to counties that are continuing to depopulate. 

This map also tells a compelling story. You can look at it and see the depopulation of areas that have historically relied on industries that have since declined. In New England, Northern and Downeast Maine continue to experience population loss. In fact, Hancock County, home to Acadia National Park, is the only county in the Downeast region to gain in population, an illustration of the principle that recreational activities are a driver of population gain. Maine is one of only three states (along with Vermont and West Virginia) with a majority rural population so its rural communities are vital to the overall health of the state. The areas that have been hardest hit in Maine are those that have historically been reliant on fishing and logging. As these industries have declined, as have the fortunes of the towns that once supported them. The same is also true in West Virginia, which has historically been supported by the coal industry. In fact, the majority of counties in West Virginia lost population, an affliction that also affects neighboring and also formerly coal reliant eastern Kentucky. 

The map also tells another compelling story, the decline of the impoverished rural South and the region's continued struggles. I would be remiss if I did not mention that my native county, Robeson County, North Carolina, saw a decline of 759 people in the last year. Within this however is also a great illustration of the growth of metro adjacent areas. Just last month, the Robeson County Board of Education discussed shutting down my high school alma mater, South Robeson High School, because of the declining youth population in that section of the county. In making that decision, they noted the asymmetrical growth in the county, with the northern part of the county, which is metro adjacent with Fayetteville being just over the county line, experiencing growth and the more isolated southern part experiencing population loss. Despite the growth in the northern part of the county, Robeson has, for the past couple of years, been leading the way in population loss in North Carolina. Robeson County's population losses also fit into the broader trend of impoverished, rural Southern counties declining in population. In almost every Southern state, the impoverished counties are the ones that are losing population. 

This story illustrates a growing problem, the continued isolation of disadvantaged rural communities. While this study is an overall positive for rural America, it does contain some continuing and troubling trends. As the most impoverished and disadvantaged communities continue to experience population loss, it will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in those communities. Many of the most vulnerable people in these communities lack the resources to simply move to a new area to look for work and will be directly impacted by the consequences of a smaller population. For example, if property tax revenue declines, who will pay for schools? If skilled people are not moving to the area and are leaving, who will provide medical services? Legal services? As I have discussed in this space many times, there is an almost universal rural lawyer shortage and in many spaces, the bar is only aging. The potential impact of the continued decline of disadvantaged rural spaces could be dire for the most vulnerable in those spaces. 

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