Rural America isn’t quite what it used to be, a new government study finds.

The nation’s most rural counties lost population and had relatively minor or even negative economic growth between 2010 and 2018, according to “Rural America at a Glance: 2019 Edition” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

In contrast, the nation’s metropolitan counties — generally described as ones with at least one urban area of more than 50,000 people — gained residents and had relatively large economic growth

Not surprisingly to anyone involved with U.S. agriculture, the study found that “real income per person in farming-dependent counties” fell after 2013, when the multi-year ag boom ended. As the study noted, net farm income fell from $137 billion in 2013 to $81 billion in 2017 — a decline that inevitably hit residents of farming-dependent counties, which often are rural.

Among other things, the study sought to analyze how rural America has fared after the national economic downturn, commonly known as the Great Recession, ended in 2009.

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Its findings include:

  • Though metropolitan counties enjoyed population growth of 7% between 2010 and 2018, the nation’s most rural and isolated counties lost 0.4% of their residents in the same period. That’s attributed to both natural decrease (deaths outnumbering births) and net outmigration, or rural residents leaving.

  • Employment in the most rural and isolated counties fell 0.4% in the eight-year period, compared with an 8% increase in metro counties. That at least partly reflects the differing rates of population gain and loss in the two categories, the report noted.

  • Labor force participation — the share of the adult population that’s either employed or actively seeking employment — has recovered much more slowly in rural counties than metro counties since the Great Recession ended. Residents of rural counties are, on average, older and more likely to be retired and also have slightly less education, the report said.

  • Though the overall poverty rate fell between 2010 and 2018, the decline in the most rural areas was relatively small. Historically, the poverty rate in rural areas has exceeded that in metro areas, the report noted:

To read the report: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/95341/eib-212.pdf?v=5832.

Defining terms

“Rural’ and “metropolitan” aren't easy terms to define. Different organizations and experts offer differing definitions, and additional terms such as “nonmetro” — which combines aspects of rural and metropolitan — further complicate the issue. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service provides these county-based definitions:

Metropolitan — A county with at least one urban area with 50,000 or more people. Metropolitan area — An urban core area with at least 50,000 residents and that also has “outlying counties that are economically tied to the core counties as measured by labor-force commuting.”

Rural — A county with open space and settlements of fewer than 2,500 people.

Nonmetro — A county with open spaces, rural towns with fewer than 2,500 residents and at least one urban core core with 2,500 residents to 49,999.