This rural population decline has accelerated as more people leave rural communities for more urban areas. Between 2000 and 2020, departures from rural counties outweighed new arrivals by 700,000 people. FWD.us projections conservatively show that this trend will continue over the next two decades, resulting in a net loss of an additional 600,000 people by 2040. Those leaving are often in their prime working years, leaving behind a population that is rapidly aging; during the past two decades, the average ratio of individuals 65 or older for every 100 working-age people across rural counties rose to 40 from 26, far outpacing the U.S. overall (25 in 2020 from 19 in 2010).
People are leaving rural America for a variety of reasons: education, work, business opportunities, family. This is not only a population loss, but also a real loss of people, deeply felt by the communities in which they had lived much of their lives.
Unfortunately, internal migration—that is, movement within the U.S. between states counties—is not likely to be enough to counter these trends. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when significantly more people were relocating, there was not much meaningful movement from urban centers to those rural counties contained in this report, and what movement there was has started to subside, in part because remote workers are returning to offices. Also, those who have relocated permanently are often trained and working in fields that are not a strong match for the skills and labor needed in these communities.
However, to reverse rural population declines and rebuild the rural working-age population to where it was 20 years ago, rural communities can welcome more new Americans as residents. As newcomers arrive, they and their children can, over time, become an integrated part of rural American life, an experience that is historically consistent with the many waves of newcomers entering the U.S, including rural areas, since the founding of the country.
Fortunately, several rural communities have weathered current demographic challenges, and have actually managed not only to recover but also to grow and thrive. Rural communities whose working-age populations have rebounded have one important factor in common: increased immigration. Nearly all of these rural counties have blunted the outflow of residents with an inflow of immigrants. Two of these rural counties – one in Iowa and another in Alabama – are featured in this report, along with another county in Maine that is actively recruiting international immigrants.
Immigration would make all the difference for rural counties in offsetting rural population decline. FWD.us projects that nearly two-thirds (62%) of rural counties nationwide would see larger working-age populations in 2040 than in 2000 if just 100 new immigrants settled in their county each year. This share rises to nearly three-quarters (71%) of counties if 200 new immigrants were welcomed each year. Between 100 and 200 immigrants into rural counties each year represents less than 1% of the total U.S. rural population, on par with levels of international immigration seen into more urban areas in the rest of the country.
Rural counties, like those presented in this report, are already prepared to meet any challenges in welcoming new residents. New Americans are ready to fill open jobs, grow local businesses, and revitalize their houses of worship and schools. In doing so, existing populations in these rural counties will also improve their current quality of life, from having better access to healthcare and potential higher standard of living, more businesses created, and a larger tax base that can be invested in local community infrastructure and services. Rebuilding a rural county’s population is not just about filling open jobs, it is also about improving the quality life for all residents.
For so many rural communities, immigration is an important historical legacy, a fundamental part of the stories of how their family from European countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, or Norway, among others, migrated to rural communities across America so many years ago. It is also a legacy of immigration, perhaps from other parts of the world, that can shape rural communities’ futures in the years to come.