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Clarion Congress & Hotel, Cosmos 3A


Daniel T. Lichter (Cornell University)

Kenneth M. Johnson (Univ. of New Hampshire)

Topic: Immigration and Population Change in Rural America: A Demographic Lifeline to Depopulating Rural Areas?


Rural depopulation has become a signature demographic phenomenon throughout much of developed world, including United States and Europe. In the United States, rural counties often peaked in population size before 1950, especially in the agricultural heartland (Johnson & Lichter 2019). Many counties, especially in remote rural areas, have been “left behind” by an increasingly urban settlement system marked by on-going shifts away from farming and other extractive industries and by the ascendancy of a globalizing economy.

Chronic rural out-migration and rapid urbanization have redefined the settlement system over the past century.  Perhaps ironically, parts of rural America also are now being transformed by new rural in-migration of immigrant populations, including Hispanics, who arguably are providing a demographic and economic lifeline to many declining rural communities.  Indeed, between 2000 and 2010, Hispanics accounted for over 60 percent of all nonmetropolitan population growth.  Growth of the Hispanic population both from migration and natural increase often makes the difference between overall county population growth and decline.  Our previous research reported that the population increased in 353 counties between 2000 and 2010, but only because Hispanic population gains exceeded losses among non-Hispanics (Johnson & Lichter 2016).

Our singular goal is to highlight the new racial dynamics of population growth and decline processes, including both migration and natural increase, in nonmetropolitan America.  To accomplish our goals, we use 3,141 counties as the unit of analysis, tracking migration, natural increase, immigration and population change data over the 1990-to-2016 period.  Nonmetropolitan (or rural) counties are classified by U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Population data come from the decennial Censuses, while historical data on births, deaths and migration for 1990 to 2010 come from newly-available integrated age specific net migration files (Winkler, et. al 2013). Demographic data from 2010 to 2016 are from the Census Bureau Population Estimates Series.

Our preliminary results show that Hispanics—through both net in-migration and natural increase—have provided new growth in nonmetropolitan counties that otherwise would have faced incipient population decline.  Hispanic population gains occurred in 86 percent of the depopulating counties between 2000 and 2010.  Moreover, 21 percent of previously depopulating counties gained population overall between 2000 and 2010, in large part due to Hispanic population gains.  Among many rural counties that peaked in population size in 2010, this occurred only because Hispanic population increased between 2000 and 2010.

Hispanic immigrant population has a growing demographic grip on rural America in the post-2000 period.  New Hispanic in-migration and fertility often made the difference between overall population growth and decline.  This is significant from a policy standpoint during the current period of rapid population aging and below replacement fertility among the native white population.  Our analyses provides new lessons for studying depopulation in the United States and other parts of the developed world, including Europe.

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