Millions of people travel to Stone County, Missouri every year to take a boat ride on Table Rock Lake or visit the famous Silver Dollar City amusement park. The county’s economy is based primarily on recreation and supports a community of approximately 31,000 residents.
But like many rural counties, Stone County’s population declined from 2010 to 2020. Sheila Thomas, president and CEO of the Table Rock Lake Chamber of Commerce, worried that the population was aging and aimed to launch a plan Development Plan in March 2020 to help attract a younger workforce. All those plans were put on hold once the pandemic hit.
Despite concerns about the county’s economic stability, especially after the closure of one of its major employers, Thomas was in for a surprise.
People flocked to Table Rock Lake.
“What we’ve discovered during the pandemic is that people have discovered that they can work from home,” Thomas said. “So we’ve seen not only retirees keep coming, but we’ve seen families and young people from the coasts saying, ‘I can run my business from here.'”
The county’s tax revenues fell only slightly during the first year of the pandemic and, perhaps a bigger surprise, its population grew by 1.5%.
Stone County wasn’t the only rural county that saw its population grow during the first year of the pandemic. A recent peer-reviewed article in Rural Sociology suggests that over a third of rural counties in the United States grew from April 2020 to July 2021 after a decade of population decline.
Most of the rural counties that saw population growth were in retirement or recreation destinations like Stone County’s Table Rock Lake, where the economy depends on drawing people to its outdoor activities like boating and fishing, or natural amenities like lush green hills and scenic coastlines.
How COVID-19 has played a role in population change
COVID-19 has accelerated death rates and slowed birth rates, exacerbating an existing trend of natural population loss in rural or non-metropolitan areas. But as more people have moved to rural areas, the rural population of the United States has not decreased.
“This is extremely unusual historically, so we’re still trying to figure out all the nuances of this and whether it’s just a short-term thing or will it reflect long-term changes,” said Kenneth Johnson, the paper’s author. and senior professor of sociology and demographer in the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.
“But either way, it’s unusual and surprising, even for someone like me, who has studied rural America my entire career,” he added.
The rural US population grew by approximately 0.13%, or 77,000 residents, between April 2020 and July 2021, while urban areas grew by only 0.1%. While that’s a slight increase for the country’s rural population, Johnson said the population increase is rarely larger than urban or metropolitan areas.
Urban areas typically grow faster than rural areas because they often have more births than deaths, or natural increase, while people also often migrate. Meanwhile, rural areas typically have older populations, meaning more deaths and fewer births, or natural decrease, and people often migrate out.
In his research, Johnson found that rural populations grew in more than 80 percent of recreation and retirement-dependent counties as a result of people migrating to those areas, compared to 43 percent in agriculture-dependent counties and 36 % of counties dependent on manufacturing.
“The big story in many agricultural places is that young people born and raised in the United States don’t want to work on farms,” said Tom Mueller, a sociologist and rural demographer at the University of Oklahoma.
Agricultural counties, such as those in the Midwest and the Great Plains region, have been losing population for years, he said. Not only has agriculture become increasingly mechanized, meaning fewer workers are needed, but farm counties are also more remote and less likely to offer services like people, Mueller said.
Various factors determine why people leave or stay in one place, according to Johnson, but he suggested that new opportunities for people to have flexible work schedules and work remotely, resulting from the pandemic, have likely contributed to the growth of the rural population of the United States.
“If you worked on an assembly line or worked in a meatpacking plant, you had no choice: You went to work anyway,” Johnson said. “But if you could work remotely, then why not do it at a place you like best.”
The pandemic may also have prevented some rural residents who were planning to move to a more urban area from doing so, Johnson said, while seasonal visitors may have turned their second homes into rural recreation areas or retirement destinations into primary residences. .
“This is a very turbulent time – economically, demographically, epidemiologically,” he said. “So it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on with the migration.”
How likely is it that rural population growth will continue
Because his study only looks at the change in the rural US population in the 15 months following the 2020 census, Johnson said it’s too early to tell whether the upward trend will continue.
“COVID has impacted American life. It’s reduced birth rates, it’s reduced mobility, it could make people think seriously about what’s important to them,” she said. “So we just have to see how this is reflected in the demographic trends of rural America in the coming years.”
Some sociologists and rural demographers believe that US rural population growth is a blip that will eventually return to its normal trend.
“During COVID, there was a very unique point where everything that’s good about a city suddenly wasn’t,” Mueller said. “But I don’t think it’s a long-term thing by any means.”
Mueller pointed out that Johnson’s research suggests that rural counties closest to urban areas are more likely to grow. At the same time, she said rural areas are unlikely to see continued growth unless there is more investment in infrastructure such as broadband internet.
“I don’t see COVID as generating the reemergence and total revitalization of rural America,” Mueller said. “And I don’t even see it as some sort of persistent slow growth unless we can really invest and improve our rural infrastructure.”
Xcaret Nuñez covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KOSU and Harvest Public Media and is a corps member of Report For America.
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. He reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.