Comparisons of outmigration counties with other nonmetro counties across a range of characteristics reinforce the idea that rural population loss through high net outmigration does not stem from a single set of conditions. Migration to the low-poverty outmigration counties is limited primarily by their geography and the scenic amenities they offer. Over half of these counties have fewer than 10 residents per square mile, and two out of three are not adjacent to a metro area. ERS research has shown that pleasant landscapes are associated with population gain through migration: 70 percent of the low-poverty outmigration counties fall in the bottom third on a composite measure of landscape attractiveness. Lack of forest is a major reason for the low landscape scores, as nearly two-thirds of these counties have less than 5 percent forest cover. Most of these counties have extensive farmland and very little public land. However, socioeconomic conditions in low-poverty outmigration counties are similar to those in other nonmetro areas. With relatively low unemployment (in 2000), economic conditions should not be forcing people to leave low-poverty outmigration counties. Nonetheless, prospective young inmigrants may not see much future for advancement in small, declining economies with few compensating residential amenities.

Over 40 percent of the low-poverty outmigration counties were classified as farm dependent in 2000, compared with less than 9 percent of the other nonmetro counties. Given that many of the other nonmetro counties have over 50 percent farmland, this difference appears to reflect the absence of other activities such as manufacturing and recreation in the low-poverty outmigration counties rather than a disproportionately high presence of agriculture.

Although their geography and landscape are not as attractive as those of other nonmetro counties, the central issue for high-poverty outmigration counties appears to be lack of economic opportunity. Over 30 percent of the working-age populations in these counties do not have a high school diploma or equivalent—double the proportion in the low-poverty outmigration counties. Even with the high outmigration of young adults, 19 percent of the residents in their 20s were unemployed—twice the rate in other nonmetro counties. Median household incomes were only two-thirds the level found in other nonmetro counties.