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UNH study: Rural America grew slightly, prompted by migration during the pandemic

Plymouth NH
Sarah Gibson
Like other parts of rural America, some towns surrounding Plymouth, N.H. saw an increase in population during the pandemic.

Rural America grew for the first time in a decade last year, according to new research from the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School, prompted by migration during the COVID-19 pandemic. And for the first time in 50 years, population growth in rural America exceeded growth in cities.

In a study of U.S Census estimates, researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that between April 2020 and July 2021, non-metropolitan counties in the U.S. gained population. This was in spite of a dramatic increase in deaths due to COVID-19, as well as a continued trend of declining birth rates in rural areas.

Cities, meanwhile, saw their migration and birth rates plummet over that same period.

UNH rural.PNG
University of New Hampshire
Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, looked at estimates from the U.S. Census to examine pandemic population trends in cities and rural America.

The study confirms the scope of a phenomenon seen in New Hampshire and elsewhere over the past few years: As remote work spread, housing markets shifted, and the pandemic upended lives, Americans moved out of cities.

It’s unclear if this trend is continuing, but it temporarily reverses a decline seen from 2010 to 2020, when rural America lost population for the first time in recorded history. In the Northeast, that population loss occurred in 75% of rural counties.

In the 15 months after the 2020 Census, the study finds, the non-metropolitan population of the U.S. grew by 77,000 people.

This migration was concentrated to areas with retirement communities and recreational activities. Previous work by Kenneth Johnson, a UNH demographer and author of the study, shows that some of these areas were already seeing a population increase prior to the pandemic.

The full study, published in the journal Rural Sociology, can be found here.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.