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A Population in Decline: Outmigration in the Rural U.S. Heartland

November 02, 2016
Growing up in rural central Montana, I saw firsthand the population crisis within the rural communities of the Great Plains. As an inhabitant of a town in a county identified in a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) study as one of Montana’s ten “accelerated declining rural counties,” I have witnessed the decline in population of my community by over 25%, from 529 to 401, over the course of my lifetime [1].

By John Lillegard

Map of the US with highlighted areas of population growth or decline

My community and my county are not alone in confronting the challenge of rural depopulation. Though rural depopulation has afflicted counties in other regions of the United States– the Corn Belt, Delta South, and Appalachia East- the Great Plains counties have proven to be the most susceptible, with the highest rate of declining counties of any region.  Based on population trends from the thirty year period of 1980 to 2010, over 199 counties on the Great Plains have been designated “declining counties,” and an additional 141 counties have been determined to be in “accelerated” decline. As a whole, 340 of the 478 counties (71%) in the Great Plains region have experienced a net loss in population, far exceeding the percentage of declining counties in the Corn Belt (41.4%), Delta South (30%), or Appalachia East (41.3%) [2].

According to the FDIC study, technological change within the agriculture industry over the last century is one of the core reasons for the population decrease in rural America [3]. Advances in farm machinery, pesticides, fertilizers, and other facets of the industry have all led to the reduction of manpower necessary to own and operate a farm or ranch. 

As evident in my hometown, the mechanization of agriculture has not only directly affected the farm population, but also severely impacted the settlements located in rural counties.  Communities such as the one in which I was raised offer vital services and amenities for area farmers and ranchers, including schools, grocery stores, banks, etc. As the farm population decreases, fewer people patronize the businesses and services of rural communities. Facing decreasing prospects of making a living in their home community, inhabitants of the towns gain an incentive to relocate to an urban area as well.

The movement of individuals from these areas– termed “outmigration” by academics– is primarily composed of adults younger than 45 [4]. This younger generation leaves behind a much older population.  In Montana, the change in the rural demographic is palpable – average age of farm and ranch operators has increased to 58.9 years in 2012, up from 54 years old 15 years before [5].

While outmigration has been a leading factor in rural depopulation on the Great Plains over the last half century, it must also be noted that migration is not the only trend negatively impacting population in rural counties. Recently, rural declining counties have also faced the prospect of “natural decrease,” where the birth rate among the remaining residents has failed to exceed the death rate [6].

As the younger generation departs and the remaining population naturally decreases, the impact is increasingly felt in rural counties. With the decrease in population of both the towns and the surrounding farm country, the quality of life for those who remain diminishes [7]. The older population left behind loses access to local health care as rural clinics and hospitals are forced to close or consolidate. The young people who stay and raise families are confronted with the possibility of losing access to convenient education for their children as area schools contemplate consolidation with neighboring school districts to manage expenses. The business sector fairs poorly as well; the decrease in patrons can lead to the closure of the communities’ restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and hardware stores.  As communities lose schools, businesses and local health care, outmigration is likely to increase, leading to a spiral of decline which is difficult to reverse [8].

However, there are several strategies which can be employed to combat this vicious cycle. Most importantly, rural communities must find solutions to mitigate the adverse effects of depopulation on quality of life. One such example can be seen in education. Whereas a low student population once meant consolidation among several schools, Montana towns have increasingly been able to preserve their schools by turning to cooperative agreements with nearby districts. This way, the schools have been able to maintain extracurricular programs for their students, such as sports and forensics, even as enrollments decline. Such cooperation has allowed communities to maintain a vital amenity and prevent further outmigration [9]. Another important innovation which rural communities might employ is telehealth. Telehealth employs telecommunication technology to monitor patient health and share health information over long distances. While telehealth cannot replace one-on-one provider care, it can eliminate many doctor visits, trips which can in some cases take several hours for the patients to undertake [10].

Reversal of rural depopulation is much more difficult, as the trend in the decreasing labor force in agriculture will most likely continue. Rural counties must search for solutions to diversify away from the agriculture industry as the demand for labor in that industry continues to decrease. With the advent of the Internet, many jobs can be done anywhere in the United States where Internet service is available. Communities must exploit the advantages and resources available to them to lure business and new residents. Recently, rural counties in eastern Montana and western North Dakota experienced a large population influx as energy firms entered the region to develop the Bakken oil play [11]. Tourism is another industry in which rural counties have taken part. Many Americans find the landscape and cultural heritage of the rural West appealing [12]. Some towns have even employed a new, yet old strategy to reverse population trends, taking advantage of one resource in which they have an abundance: land. Reminiscent of the free land grants which were used to settle the West in the late 19th century, select counties in Kansas have embarked in a free land program to attract new families. Home plots donated to or otherwise acquired by the communities were given for free to applicants from across the United States seeking a change in lifestyle. The more established programs in Kansas have found some success, with one town gaining 122 new residents and adding 48 new children to its school district [13].

Rural towns and communities must work together and find new and innovative ways to survive, employing new innovations in technology, exploiting and promoting their assets, and even revisiting old strategies. Failure to do so will result in the loss of once vibrant communities and the decline in quality of life of a small, yet significant portion of the American people.


  [1] “Montana: 2010 Population and Housing Unit Count,” 2010 Census of Population and Housing. U.S. Census Bureau, 2012. p. 14 Available: https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/cph-2-28.pdf [Accessed July 28, 2016]

  [2] John Anderlik and Richard Cofer, Jr, “Long-Term Trends in Rural Depopulation and their Implications for Community Banks,” FDIC Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 2, p. , 2014.  Available: https://www.fdic.gov/bank/analytical/quarterly/2014_vol8_2/article2.pdf. [Accessed July 23, 2016]

  [3] John Anderlik and Richard Cofer, Jr, “Long-Term Trends in Rural Depopulation and their Implications for Community Banks,” FDIC Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 2, p. 44, 2014.  Available: https://www.fdic.gov/bank/analytical/quarterly/2014_vol8_2/article2.pdf. [Accessed July 23, 2016]

  [4] Max Lu and Darci Paull, “Assessing the Free Land Programs for Reversing Rural Depopulation,” Great Plains Research, vol. 17, no. 1, p. 76, Spring 2007. Available: ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com/pqrl/docview/755052950/88A0FBA112C45F6PQ/6?accountid=12084. [Accessed July 28, 2016]

  [5] 2012 Census of Agriculture: Montana State and County Data, Geographic and Area Studies, vol. 1, p. 7. Available: https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_1_State_Level/Montana/mtv1.pdf. [Accessed July 28, 2016]

  [6] John Anderlik and Richard Cofer, Jr, “Long-Term Trends in Rural Depopulation and their Implications for Community Banks,” FDIC Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 2, p. 49, 2014.  Available: https://www.fdic.gov/bank/analytical/quarterly/2014_vol8_2/article2.pdf. [Accessed: July 23, 2016]

  [7]Max Lu and Darci Paull, “Assessing the Free Land Programs for Reversing Rural Depopulation,” Great Plains Research, vol. 17, no. 1, p. 76, Spring 2007. Available: ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com/pqrl/docview/755052950/88A0FBA112C45F6PQ/6?accountid=12084. [Accessed July 28, 2016]

  [8] John Anderlik and Richard Cofer, Jr, “Long-Term Trends in Rural Depopulation and their Implications for Community Banks,” FDIC Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 2, p. 58, 2014.  Available: https://www.fdic.gov/bank/analytical/quarterly/2014_vol8_2/article2.pdf. [Accessed: July 23, 2016]

  [9] Cody Porter, “Cooperative Programs Keep Athletics Alive for Small Schools,” May 17, 2016. Online. Available: https://www.nfhs.org/articles/cooperative-programs-keep-athletics-alive-for-small-schools/#. [Accessed Aug. 10, 2016]

  [10] What is Telehealth? Health Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016. Available: http://www.hrsa.gov/healthit/toolbox/RuralHealthITtoolbox/Telehealth/whatistelehealth.html. [Accessed: July 28, 2016]

  [11] “Growing ND by the Numbers,” North Dakota Census Office, p. 2, November 2015. Available: https://www.commerce.nd.gov/uploads/8/CensusNewsletterNov2015.pdf. [Accessed July 28, 2016]

  [12] Max Lu and Darci Paull, “Assessing the Free Land Programs for Reversing Rural Depopulation,” Great Plains Research, vol. 17, no. 1, p. 76, Spring 2007. Available: ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com/pqrl/docview/755052950/88A0FBA112C45F6PQ/6?accountid=12084. [Accessed July 28, 2016]

  [13] Max Lu and Darci Paull, “Assessing the Free Land Programs for Reversing Rural Depopulation,” Great Plains Research, vol. 17, no. 1, p. 79, Spring 2007. Available: ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com/pqrl/docview/755052950/88A0FBA112C45F6PQ/6?accountid=12084. [Accessed July 28, 2016]

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