Rural America grew in the pandemic's early days. But mostly recreational counties saw gains
Millions of people travel to Stone County, Missouri, every year to ride a boat out on Table Rock Lake or visit the popular amusement park Silver Dollar City. The county’s economy primarily relies on recreational activities and supports a community of about 31,000 residents.
But like many rural counties, Stone County’s population fell from 2010 to 2020. Sheila Thomas, president and CEO of Table Rock Lake Chamber of Commerce, grew concerned that the population was aging out and aimed to roll out an economic development plan in March 2020 to help attract a younger workforce. All those plans paused once the pandemic hit.
Despite worries about the county’s economic stability, especially after one of its biggest employers shut down, Thomas was in for a surprise.
People were flocking to Table Rock Lake.
“What we found during the pandemic was people discovered they could work from home,” Thomas said. “So we saw not only retirees continuing to come, but we saw families and younger folks coming from the coasts who were like, ‘I can run my company from here.’”
The county’s tax revenue dipped only slightly during the pandemic’s first year, and perhaps a bigger surprise, its population grew by 1.5%.
Stone County wasn’t the only rural county that saw its population grow during the first year of the pandemic. A recent peer-reviewed article in Rural Sociology suggests over a third of rural counties in the U.S. grew from April 2020 to July 2021 after a decade of population decline.
Most of the rural counties that saw population growth were in recreational or retirement destinations like Stone County’s Table Rock Lake, where the economy depends on attracting people to its outdoor activities like boating and fishing, or natural amenities like lush green hillsides and scenic shorelines.
How COVID-19 played a role in population change
COVID-19 accelerated death rates and slowed birth rates, exacerbating an existing trend of natural population loss in rural, or nonmetropolitan, areas. But because more people moved to rural areas, the U.S. rural population didn’t decline.
“That’s extremely unusual historically, and so we’re still trying to understand all the nuances of this and whether it's just a short-term thing or if it's going to reflect longer-term changes,” said Kenneth Johnson, the author of the article and a professor of sociology and senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.
“But in any event, it’s unusual and surprising, even to someone like me, who's studied rural America for his whole career,” he added.
The U.S. rural population grew by approximately 0.13%, or 77,000 residents, between April 2020 and July 2021, while urban areas only grew by 0.1%. Although it’s a slight increase for the country’s rural population, Johnson said it’s rare for its population increase to be larger than urban, or metropolitan, areas.
Urban areas typically grow faster than rural areas because they often have more births than deaths, or natural increase, while people also often migrate in. Meanwhile, rural areas typically have an older population, which means more deaths and fewer births, or natural decrease, and people often migrate out.
In his research, Johnson found rural populations grew in more than 80% of recreation- and retirement-dependent counties because of people migrating into those areas, compared to 43% of farming-dependent counties and 36% of manufacturing-dependent counties.
“The big story in a lot of the farming places is that young people born and raised in the U.S. don't want to work on farms,” said Tom Mueller, a rural sociologist and demographer at the University of Oklahoma.
Farm counties, like those across the Midwest and Great Plains region, have lost population for years, he said. Not only has farming become increasingly mechanized, which means fewer workers are needed, farm counties are also more remote and less likely to offer amenities people like, Mueller said.
Various factors determine why people leave or stay in a place, according to Johnson, but he suggested that new opportunities for people to have flexible work schedules and work remotely, which stemmed from the pandemic, likely contributed to the U.S. rural population growth.
“If you worked on an assembly line or you worked in a meatpacking plant, you didn't have any choice — you still went to work,” Johnson said. “But if you could do remote work, then why not do it in a place that was more appealing to you.”
The pandemic also may have kept some rural residents who were planning a move to a more urban area from doing so, Johnson said, while seasonal visitors may have turned their second homes in rural recreation or retirement destinations into primary residences.
“This is a very turbulent time — economically, demographically, epidemiologically,” he said. “So it's hard to know exactly what's going on with migration.”
How likely the growth in rural population continues
Because his study only looks at the change in the U.S. rural population in the 15 months after the 2020 census, Johnson said it’s too early to tell whether the upward trend will continue.
“COVID has had impacts on American life: it's reduced births, it's reduced mobility, it may be causing people to think seriously about what's important to them,” he said. “So we just have to see how this is going to be reflected in rural America’s demographic trends over the coming years.”
Some rural sociologists and demographers believe that the growth in the U.S. rural population is a blip that will eventually return to its normal trend.
“During COVID, there was a very unique point where everything that's good about a city suddenly wasn't,” Mueller said. “But I don't think that's a long-term thing by any means.”
Mueller pointed out that Johnson’s research suggests rural counties in closer proximity to urban areas were more likely to grow. At the same time, he said rural areas are unlikely to see continued growth unless there’s more investment in infrastructure such as broadband internet.
“I don’t see COVID as engendering the reemergence and total revitalization of rural America,” Mueller said. “And I don't see it being a kind of persistent slow growth either unless we can really invest and improve our rural infrastructure.”
Xcaret Nuñez covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KOSU and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.
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