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UNH Study: For First Time, Rural Populations Declined Over Last Decade

Ken Johnson - UNH
Rural Sociology Society
A map shows counties that saw more deaths than births in the past decade. Orange and red counties saw five or more years out of the decade with population decrease.

A new study from the University of New Hampshire shows that U.S. population growth was at its the lowest rate in a century last year, particularly in rural areas and Northern New England.

UNH demographer Ken Johnson’s research found that over the past decade, rural counties nationwide lost population for the first time on record.

More than half of rural counties saw more deaths than births from 2010 to 2019, which was true in less than a quarter of urban counties.

Johnson said these trends date to the effects of the Great Recession, more than a decade ago.

“As migration slowed down, parts of rural America that had been growing – especially ones just beyond urban areas, or in high-amenity areas like in Carroll County in New Hampshire – their growth rates slowed down, because they depend very heavily on migration,” he said.

Combined with diminished birth rates due to the economic downturn, he said that “meant that there was very little to produce growth in rural America” – and those trends have continued into the pandemic.

The story is the same in New Hampshire. In 2019, Johnson found, it was one of only four states – along with Maine, Vermont and West Virginia – where death rates were higher than birth rates statewide.

Johnson said the pandemic and its associated economic downturn are a “double whammy” that will likely continue these trends – causing fewer people to have children, slowing migration within the country and limiting it from abroad, all while driving up death rates nationwide.

"There's going to be natural decrease again this year,” he said. “My estimate is that probably 10 U.S. states will have more people die in them than be born in the next year or so."

For example, he said New Hampshire saw about 12,100 deaths and 12,000 births from 2018 to 2019. Since the start of the pandemic less than a year ago, a thousand Granite Staters have died from COVID-19 alone.

“The United States as a whole usually would have about 2.7 or 2.8 million deaths in a year,” Johnson said. “Add 300,000 extra ones onto that, at least, and that’s a substantial difference.”  

One thing that’s still unclear, he said, is whether some migration during the pandemic will last – like whether people who moved to second homes in rural areas will stay there permanently.

Likewise, he said scientists in his field are only just beginning to consider the potential effects of climate change, which could fuel massive migration in the U.S. in the coming decades.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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