In this brief Carsey Senior Demographer Kenneth Johnson examines rural demographic trends between 2010 and 2020 using data from the 2020 Census. The economic turbulence beginning with the Great Recession and continuing through the next decade had a significant demographic impact on rural America. Between 2010 and 2020 rural population loss was widespread, with more than two-thirds of all nonmetropolitan counties losing population. With fewer births, more deaths, and more people leaving than moving in, rural America experienced an overall population loss for the first time in history. Population losses were greatest in remote rural counties, but even in rural counties that were adjacent to metropolitan counties, population gains were minimal.

If rural outmigration is ongoing, and deaths continue to exceed births in many rural areas due to low fertility and higher mortality among the aging rural population, then population losses are likely to continue in much of rural America. And the onset of COVID-19, which generated additional social, economic, and epidemiological turbulence, is likely to contribute to more rural population loss because it significantly increased rural deaths and discouraged births. Rural counties with sustained population loss face significant challenges maintaining critical infrastructure needed to provide quality health care, education, and a viable economy for the remaining residents.

This research is relevant to scholars, policymakers, and the media at a time when there is considerable interest in rural America. The demographic changes that are reshaping nonmetropolitan areas inform contemporary policy making intended to increase the viability of rural communities and enhance their contribution to the nation’s material, environmental, and social well-being.


Carsey School of Public Policy

Publication Date

Winter 2-22-2022


National Issue Brief No. 160


Durham, N.H. : Carsey School of Public Policy, University of New Hampshire

Document Type



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