Population loss is endemic to many rural areas. Nearly half of the nation’s 2,050 nonmetropolitan counties lost population through net outmigration between 1988 and 2008; for over 700 counties, this loss exceeded 10 percent. In counties with a long history of high outmigration, the loss is often exacerbated by “natural decrease,” an excess of deaths over births due to an aged population. Rural depopulation is a continuing concern in the rural policy community, and repopulating rural communities is one of the goals of USDA’s Strategic Plan for 2010-2015.

What makes nonmetro high net outmigration counties different from other nonmetro counties? Research results suggest that no single set of characteristics differentiates high outmigration counties. Some outmigration counties have populations with low education, high unemployment, and high poverty; most, however, have relatively well-educated populations and below-average unemployment rates. Their high outmigration appears related to geographic isolation and a lack of natural amenities.

Poverty does not drive outmigration in most counties

ERS researchers began with an examination of the relationship between poverty and high net outmigration. High net outmigration might be expected in areas with above-average poverty rates, since poverty suggests a lack of economic opportunity. The working-age population in particular is likely to react to economic opportunity in deciding where to live. In 1988-2008, however, this relationship held only in counties with poverty rates above 25 percent. While 60 percent of these “high-poverty” counties had high net outmigration, poverty rates below 25 percent had no apparent relevance, indicating that different factors underlie high net outmigration in most nonmetro areas. The analysis that follows distinguishes the 733 nonmetro high net outmigration counties (hereafter labeled “outmigration counties”) according to whether their poverty rates were 25 percent or more (167 high-poverty counties) or lower (626 low-poverty counties).

About half of the low-poverty outmigration counties were located in the Great Plains, where they comprise nearly 80 percent of nonmetro counties. The area of low-poverty outmigration extends east of the Great Plains into the agricultural counties of Iowa, Illinois, and southwestern Minnesota. High-poverty outmigration counties often had large minority populations—Native Americans in the Northern Plains, Hispanics in southern Texas, and Blacks in the Mississippi Delta and across the Cotton Belt. Some Appalachian Highland counties in Kentucky and West Virginia also had high poverty combined with high outmigration.

All rural areas lose young adults, but most gain families and retirees

One way to gain insight into factors underlying high net outmigration is to divide the population into age cohorts—groups born in particular time spans—and examine the net migration of each cohort. For instance, a positive 1995-2000 net migration of children age 0-4 in 1995 (and 5-9 in 2000) indicates that young families are being attracted to an area. By examining the migration patterns of each age cohort in 1995-2000, one can better understand how a typical nonmetro county is affected by net migration over its population’s life cycle.

Rural communities see many of their young adults leave after high school, often to further their education or join the Armed Forces. To maintain their population size, these communities need to attract other age cohorts, such as young families with children, midlife career changers, or retirees. In 1995-2000, most nonmetro counties tended to gain through the net inmigration of children through age 14 (as young families with children moved in) but then lose young adults through age 24 (as young adults left for college and other pursuits). As adults finish school or begin settling down at around age 30, inmigration in the typical nonmetro county (other than high outmigration counties) increases and continues doing so through retirement age, before declining after age 74.

The migration pattern in low-poverty outmigration counties reveals a starkly different picture. Typically, there was no net inmigration of children and much larger outmigration of young adults. Consistent with the pattern for children, the middle-aged population shows little change due to net migration. Families are generally not leaving, suggesting that economic opportunities are adequate for existing residents. Retirement-age population also shows little net change. Since people at this age are less dependent on the local economy than younger people are, this lack of inmigration suggests that the low-poverty outmigration counties are less attractive than other nonmetro counties as places to live.

The high-poverty outmigration counties present a still different picture. They tended to lose not only young adults, but families with children as well, consistent with the limited economic opportunities represented by high poverty rates. As with the low-poverty outmigration counties, these counties also showed no gain in the retirement age population, suggesting that these counties, too, lack the amenities found in other nonmetro counties. In this case, the high-poverty environment itself may discourage retirees from migrating to the area.

Return migration is a major component of inmigration to rural communities, especially among migrants in their late 20s and 30s. They are often returning home to raise families. The proportion of outmigrants who return at this life stage is lower in outmigration counties than in other nonmetro counties, but the returnees represent 85 percent of the inmigrant pool in high-outmigration counties, compared with 66 percent in other nonmetro counties. This confirms the wisdom of several states’ focus on return migrants to repopulate rural areas undergoing substantial population loss. These counties are unlikely to attract migrants who lack pre-existing social ties to the area.