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Rural America on 'road to recovery'

Employment gains higher while rural employment remains below pre-recession levels.

After several years of stagnation, the pace of employment growth in rural areas increased in 2014. Employment gains were significantly higher over the past year compared to previous years in the recovery period, although rural employment remains below pre-recession levels, according to the 2015 edition the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural America at a Glance report.  

However, rural areas continue to experience population loss, higher poverty rates, and lower educational attainment than urban areas.

Secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack said the report “reflects a rural American on the road to recovery,” noting that rural population did not increase over the past year and some rural counties have actually seen population growth. In addition, the rural child poverty rate has declined by one percentage point.

Employment grew more than 1% in rural areas during the year that ended in the second quarter of 2015. This is a marked improvement from previous years of very slow growth or decline, the reported noted.

“Nonetheless, rural employment in mid-2015 was still 3.2% below its pre-recession peak in 2007,” the report said. “In contrast, urban employment rose nearly 2% in the past year, continuing a trend of consistent growth since 2011, and is now well above its pre-recession peak.”

Among all rural residents, unemployment rates are much lower for those with more educa­tional attainment, partly as a result of increasing demand for more highly skilled labor. In 2010, the unemployment rate for rural adults age 25 and older without a high school diploma peaked at 15%, compared with 4% for those with bachelor’s degrees and 3% for those with graduate degrees. Since then, rural unemployment rates have declined across all educational attainment categories, but remain much lower for those with more educational attainment.

Population growth

The number of people living in rural counties stood at just over 46 million in 2014—nearly 15% of U.S. residents. However, the population of rural America has declined by 116,000 over the last 4 years, with losses of about 30,000 people in each of the last 2 years.

“While these declines are small, 2010-2014 is the first period of overall population decline on record for rural America as a whole, and stands in stark contrast with the urban population, which continues to grow by more than 2 million per year,” the report said.

Not all rural areas have experienced population loss in recent years. Some rural counties have seen population growth, with nearly 700 growing rural counties together adding over 400,000 residents between 2010 and 2014. These counties are concentrated in scenic areas such as the Rocky Mountains or southern Appalachia, or in energy boom regions such as in the northern Great Plains. The 1,300 rural counties losing population since 2010 are widespread in regions dependent on farming, manufacturing or resource extraction.

Since 2010, the increase in rural population from natural change (230,000 more births than deaths) has not matched the loss from net migration (346,000 more people moved out of rural counties than moved in).

Nearly 300 rural counties lost population due to natural change during 2010-14. Retiree attraction dominates in Florida, Arizona, and other Sunbelt locations, while outmigration of young adults is more typical of farm-dependent counties in the Great Plains and Corn Belt.

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