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Rural America Declines to 46.2 Million

An eager reader points me toward a USDA analysis that should distress anyone interested in economic development in South Dakota: for the first time, non-metro countries in the United States have experienced a net population loss. 46.2 million of us live in counties outside of big cities. That's 15% of the U.S. population spread out across 72% of the land area. Between April 2010 and July 2012, non-metro areas had 135,000 more babies than deaths (that's the "natural increase"), but they saw 179,000 more people migrate out to big cities than migrate in from big cities.

South Dakota isn't as bad off as other states. The following map shows population growth during the last two years in many South Dakota counties, not just Minnehaha and Pennington:


West River is almost all blue with growth (toward the northwest thanks in part to that Bakken energy boom), while Minnesota shows more counties losing population. But a lot of those South Dakota counties with renewed population growth rates are just rebounding from the big population losses inflicted by the farm crisis of the 1980s.

Population growth slowed or went negative over the last two years everywhere but central metropolitan areas. Rural areas with economies based on farming and manufacturing saw population shrink. Rural areas with economies based on recreation, tourism, and retirement held onto population growth, but barely: their growth rate dropped from 2.8% in 2004-2006 to 0.5% in 2010-2012. In metro areas over those periods, the population growth rate remained steady at 2.0%.

The USDA analysis shows that net emigration from rural areas was even more severe in the 1980s and rebounded nicely in the 1990s. But the rate of births replacing deaths has been steadily declining since 1982. That suggests that the total population curve may be bending in a way that will pose challenges to maintaining South Dakota's economic base.

p.s.: 46.2 million rural Americans: that's still more people than inhabit all of Canada, twice the population of Australia, and a close match to Ukraine and Spain.


  1. Douglas Wiken 2013.06.05

    The blue in South Dakota has more to do with Native American high birthrate than anything else. A national magazine looked at population growth data years ago and decided that population growth on Pine Ridge was a really good indicator of potential for economic development.

  2. Richard Schriever 2013.06.05

    The non-metro, non rez counties in SD with more than 2% growth rates (easy to grow 1% when your total county pop is around 5,000 - that's just 50 people more) are: Harding, Hughes, Brown, Spink, Beadle, Brookings and Lake. Harding - Bakken; Hughes - government; Brown, Brookings and Lake are home to higher education institutions. That leaves Spink and Beadle (Beadle is an immigrant target county - low-wage manufactory; article I read says 40% of Huron school students are English Learners ). That leaves Spink as the ONLY rural SD county showing strictly rural activities related growth of signifgance.

  3. Dave 2013.06.05

    There are nearly 400 FTEs working at the South Dakota Developmental Center in Redfield in Spink County.

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