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Rural U.S. population lowest in history, demographers say

Rural U.S. population lowest in history, demographers say

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Rural America now accounts for just 16 percent of the nation's whole, an all-time low, according to demographic statistics. Here's why it's both good and bad.

Rural residents of the United States now account for just 16 percent of the nation's population, the lowest ever.

In comparison, the population share of rural America in 1910 was 72 percent.

Analysis of the latest 2010 census numbers by the Population Reference Bureau shows that the boundaries between city and country continue to blur as metropolises spill over into their surrounding countryside, the Associated Press reports.

The data were supplemented with calculations by University of Nevada-Las Vegas sociology professor Robert Lang and Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.

Hope Yen reports:

Many communities could shrink to virtual ghost towns as they shutter businesses and close down schools, demographers say.

More metro areas are booming into sprawling megalopolises. Barring fresh investment that could bring jobs, however, large swaths of the Great Plains and Appalachia, along with parts of Arkansas, Mississippi and North Texas, could face significant population declines.

The problem: too many children are growing up and leaving home for the big city without ever coming back. As a result, broad swaths of America are emptying out.

Consider this quote from Yen's report:

"Some of the most isolated rural areas face a major uphill battle, with a broad area of the country emptying out," said Mark Mather, associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau, a research group in Washington, D.C. "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."

It's happening all over the nation as budgets tighten in the public and private sectors. Major airlines are consolidating routes and eliminating loss-leaders; the U.S. Postal Service is doing the same with thousands of branches and the federal government is doing its part to eliminate subsidies for communities that aren't producing economic growth, despite its best efforts.

It's an interesting trend. Unsurprisingly, large U.S. metro areas have seen consistent double-digit percentage gains in population. The fastest growth is occurring in small and medium-sized cities that, like satellites, surround larger ones.

At most risk: Great Plains states, which have seen a steady decrease in population since the first World War.

More statistics from the report:

  • Since 2000, metro areas grew by 11 percent overall.
  • Of the 10 fastest-growing places, all were small cities in the suburbs of large metro areas. Highlights: California, Arizona, Texas.
  • The share of Americans living in suburbs has climbed to 51 percent, an all-time high.
  • The share of Americans living in cities has increased to 33 percent.

The lesson here: we need to start thinking about population less as city vs. suburb or even state vs. state and more as fluctuating, interdependent zones (the U.S. Census Bureau calls them "combined statistical areas") that cross political and geographic boundaries, e.g. the close relationship between Austin and San Antonio, Tampa and Orlando, Phoenix and Tuscon, Washington and Baltimore.

The upside: more consistent regional planning and cooperation for large public works projects such as high-speed rail.

The challenge: how to direct investment and action evenly, despite the involvement of several municipal and state governments?

Illustration: National Center for Education Statistics

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure