• <div class="header-image" style="background-image: url(/live/image/gid/4/3256_shutterstock_1302963724.rev.1575383343.jpg);" data-share-image="/live/image/gid/4/3256_shutterstock_1302963724.jpg"/><div class="header-background-color"/>

Rural America is Losing Young People - Consequences and Solutions

March 23, 2018
Many young Americans leave home and never return. In particular, this trend can be seen in rural America. 1,350 counties “non-metro” counties have lost population since 2010.[1] Since the mid 1990s, rural population growth has been significantly lower than urban areas.[2] The movement of people has resulted in national economic growth, but there are consequences. Behind these numbers lie worrisome consequences.

(Image: Overall, U.S. population declined with rural, non-metro, areas being disproportionately affected. Source: USDA ERS)

(Image: Overall, U.S. population declined with rural, non-metro, areas being disproportionately affected. Source: USDA ERS)

Why Young People Leave

Rural areas lack academic and economic opportunity compared to metropolises. Because of this, a large portion of migrants are talented high school graduates. This cause-effect relationship, known as “brain drain,” robs rural areas of intellectual capital.

Shifting industry characteristics explains a large part of migration. Farming, logging, and mining populate the rural employment sector. Unfortunately, the sector’s reliance on human capital shifted to automation, outsourcing, and foreign direct investment. The industry’s evolution into today’s technology dominated economy left rural inhabitants jobless.

While not an ideal outcome for rural inhabitants, the transition comes with drastic productivity gains. Today’s average American farmer provides food to about 155 people compared to 25.8 people in 1960. [1] The increased output per capita enables millions to work in other industries. The impact from low rural job demand is twofold. First, the industries replacing these jobs are highly specialized and required expensive human investment. Second, rural job’s low wages and physical nature labor are unattractive. These two factors contribute to a “chicken and egg cycle.” Rural inhabitants need to invest in human capital, management namely education. However, they cannot afford this development with their current wages.[2]

The economic shift pushes young people to cities. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of 2014 Economic Analysis, “Real GDP increased in 74% of cities.”[3] Domestically, 20 cities account for over 50% of the nation’s output.[4] Low headcounts in rural areas and the educational requirements of the new labor market leave young adults in rural areas with few employment choices. For instance, 50% of Oregon’s jobs surround its largest city, Portland.

The Negative Consequences of Rural Population Loss

Proponents argue that economic migration supports free market allocation of labor, capital, and taxes. These classical economists believe self-regulating markets creates the most value.[5] Their points are valid. The United States has experienced dramatic economic growth, in large part because of the freedom of U.S. citizens to move to locations with economic opportunity. Although beneficial overall, the free market theory consequences of this shift are important brings a host of problems.

Rural populations governments lose their local tax base. Subsequently, local governments must cut spending.[6] The budget cuts hurt infrastructure, community centers, and most importantly public schools. As the population drops, schools close and local businesses suffer.[7] The cutbacks drive more people to cities.

Low population deflates property values. Many elderly American rely on their home equity as their savings. When property values drop, they cannot afford to sell their homes to move. In effect, young people leave their counterparts behind, effectively trapping them. The median age in rural communities has been rising.[8] In Wheeler County, Oregon, the median age rose from 48 to 56 over a 13 year period. Unfortunately, , elderly populations must settle for mediocre healthcare, especially as hospitals in rural America continue to shut down, the rural elderly population left in rural areas receive mediocre medical care.[9]

National economic growth does not signify a uniform distribution of improvement. Geographical inequality traps rural Americans as evidenced by job creation location, new business location, and employment rate.[10] For example, the rural poverty rate is 15.1% contrasted against 12.9% for cities.[11]

The divergent economy creates dramatic political repercussions. The rural-urban divide grows as rural Americans feel estranged from their urban counterparts. This misalignment has entrenched itself in our political environment.

Potential Solutions

There are policies that could increase rural populations and improve rural economies. These policies revolve around encouraging young people to return to rural areas. Although rural to urban migration results in an efficient economy overall, if the goal is to ensure that rural geographic areas are not left behind relative to urban areas, encouraging young people to return to them is important. Young people must be convinced to return to rural areas. Reversing migration slows population loss, generates jobs, and increases human, social, and financial capital.[12] Data shows adult in-migration partially offsetting post high school out-migration.

(Image: Migration trends in metro and non-metro areas shows high rural out-migration among 20-30 ...

(Image: Migration trends in metro and non-metro areas shows high rural out-migration among 20-30 year olds is partially offset by in-migration by older adults and young children. Source: USDA.)

Because most returnees spent time in the military or college, their education, skills, and experiences alleviate the effects of brain drain. Returners can then serve on local boards, build businesses, pay taxes, and most importantly have children.

Relocation efforts require rural policy incentivizing people to relocate to rural areas meaning that State and Federal Government would have to provide rural areas with more resources. Nationally, this type of transfer of resources already occurs through wealthier states subsidizing less wealthy states through our tax system. The following policies build upon these efforts by being more targeted towards young people who are leaving rural areas and represent an additional, needed, commitment.

Many states already implement these types of targeted policies. Because many students leave home for college, Kansas began offering state income tax breaks to out of state students if they move to a rural town in Kansas after graduation.[13] Additionally, Nebraska is experimenting with enterprise zones, which encourage business development in locations characterized by declining population, high poverty rates, and unemployment.[14] The states are waiting on evidence to assess the effectiveness of these programs.

As states experiment, the Federal government works to revitalize stale rural policy that is irrelevant in modern economic times. Traditionally, rural policy fell under the jurisdiction of the USDA and Congress’s agriculture committees.[15] However, these agricultural focused committees lack the necessary holistic approach. For example, new rural policy should focus on entrepreneurship. Many young graduates migrate elsewhere because of a lack of jobs using their specific skills. Entrepreneurship requires a variety of specialized skills that align with graduates.[16] In fact, rural agriculture communities already have relatively high rates of self-employment. Unfortunately, many of these entrepreneurs have few exit options. Federal policy should create a frictionless marketplace for ownership transfer from older to younger business people. A frictionless marketplace would provide exit opportunities and a foundation for young adults. Frictionless marketplaces have already succeeded at the University of Kansas where a program helps college graduates buy rural businesses.[17]

Rural leaders must better understand how to incentivize returners. Most young people who move to rural areas grew up there. They return because of family ties and the desire to raise children in a small-town environment, surrounded by family.[18] In fact, most returnees’ parents still live in the family home. The migration decision to return also hinges on school quality.[19] Lastly, the access to outdoor recreation and tranquil rustic environments pulls young adults back to rural environments.[20]

Knowing these trends, local governments can allocate their limited resources more efficiently. Resources should solidify education and environmental quality. If doing so is difficult for smaller municipalities, county areas can pool resources. Rural leaders and parents can formulate a better pitch to their young emigrants. Instead of preaching not leave at all, they should encourage exploration and work on attracting them back as they settle down to start careers and raise children. It is no coincidence, that “Median net migration rates in nonmetropolitan counties are highest among adults age 30-34 and children age 5-9.”[21] That age group is most influenced by the appeal of life in rural America.


Although the U.S. economy is growing, rural Americans are not seeing this prosperity. Losing young people depresses rural economic conditions. The mass exodus from rural America contributed to a political divide.
Rural outmigration has not just affected the United States, but will grow as an underlying economic force throughout the world. According to Global Compact for Migration, as economies continue to develop, the number of people living in cities will almost double to 6.4 billion by 2050.[22] This change will have consequences that will require future government action.
If the goal is not just economic growth but economic growth that benefits all geographies, more targeted policies towards potential returnees, and a better understanding of returnee motives will help entire countries, and not just cities, thrive.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


  [1] http://www.farmersfeedus.org/fun-farm-facts/
  [2] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/06/the-graying-of-rural-america/485159/
  [3] https://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/regional/gdp_metro/2015/gdp_metro0915.htm
  [4] https://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/regional/gdp_metro/2015/gdp_metro0915.htm
  [5] https://www.oecd.org/migration/OECD%20Migration%20Policy%20Debates%20Numero%202.pdf
  [6] http://www.governing.com/topics/mgmt/states-try-to-counter-rural-flight.html
  [7] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1997/06/slow-death-in-the-great-plains/376882/
  [8] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/06/the-graying-of-rural-america/485159/
  [9] https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/10/03/meadows-medicaid-rural-hospitals-pregnant-women-dying-215671
  [10] https://www.axios.com/the-large-parts-of-america-left-behind-by-todays-economy-1513305693-70d3114b-c79c-403d-902c-ec5b128f793f.html
  [11] https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/09/19/prosperity-is-up-but-not-for-rural-america
  [12] https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2015/july/why-some-return-home-to-rural-america-and-why-it-matters/”
  [13] http://www.governing.com/topics/mgmt/states-try-to-counter-rural-flight.html
  [14] http://www.governing.com/topics/mgmt/states-try-to-counter-rural-flight.html
  [15] https://www.cfra.org/renewrural/s/federal-policy
  [16] https://www.cfra.org/renewrural/s/federal-policy
  [17] http://www.governing.com/topics/mgmt/states-try-to-counter-rural-flight.html
  [18] https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2015/july/why-some-return-home-to-rural-america-and-why-it-matters/”
  [19] https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2015/july/why-some-return-home-to-rural-america-and-why-it-matters/”
  [20] https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2015/july/why-some-return-home-to-rural-america-and-why-it-matters/”
  [21] https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2015/july/why-some-return-home-to-rural-america-and-why-it-matters/”
  [22] https://www.iom.int/world-migration-report-2015


  • <h3>MapStats</h3><p> A feature of FedStats, MapStats allows users to search for <strong>state, county, city, congressional district, or Federal judicial district data</strong> (demographic, economic, and geographic).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/" target="_blank">http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Bureau of Economic Research (Public Use Data Archive)</h3><p><img width="180" height="43" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/43/478_nber.rev.1407530465.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image478 lw_align_right" data-max-w="329" data-max-h="79"/>Founded in 1920, the <strong>National Bureau of Economic Research</strong> is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works. The NBER is committed to undertaking and disseminating unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professionals, and the academic community.</p><p> Quick Link to <strong>Public Use Data Archive</strong>: <a href="http://www.nber.org/data/" target="_blank">http://www.nber.org/data/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Aviation Administration: Accident & Incident Data</h3><p><img width="100" height="100" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image80 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 3x" data-max-w="550" data-max-h="550"/>The NTSB issues an accident report following each investigation. These reports are available online for reports issued since 1996, with older reports coming online soon. The reports listing is sortable by the event date, report date, city, and state.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/" target="_blank">http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>HUD State of the Cities Data Systems</h3><p><strong><img width="200" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image482 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 3x" data-max-w="612" data-max-h="613"/>The SOCDS provides data for individual Metropolitan Areas, Central Cities, and Suburbs.</strong> It is a portal for non-national data made available through a number of outside institutions (e.g. Census, BLS, FBI and others).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html" target="_blank">http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Internal Revenue Service: Tax Statistics</h3><p><img width="155" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image486 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg 2x" data-max-w="463" data-max-h="596"/>Find statistics on business tax, individual tax, charitable and exempt organizations, IRS operations and budget, and income (SOI), as well as statistics by form, products, publications, papers, and other IRS data.</p><p> Quick link to <strong>Tax Statistics, where you will find a wide range of tables, articles, and data</strong> that describe and measure elements of the U.S. tax system: <a href="http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2" target="_blank">http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The Penn World Table</h3><p> The Penn World Table provides purchasing power parity and national income accounts converted to international prices for 189 countries/territories for some or all of the years 1950-2010.</p><p><a href="https://pwt.sas.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt71/pwt71_form.php" target="_blank">Quick link.</a> </p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Congressional Budget Office</h3><p><img width="180" height="180" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/180/380_cbo-logo.rev.1406822035.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image380 lw_align_right" data-max-w="180" data-max-h="180"/>Since its founding in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has produced independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.</p><p> The agency is strictly nonpartisan and conducts objective, impartial analysis, which is evident in each of the dozens of reports and hundreds of cost estimates that its economists and policy analysts produce each year. CBO does not make policy recommendations, and each report and cost estimate discloses the agency’s assumptions and methodologies. <strong>CBO provides budgetary and economic information in a variety of ways and at various points in the legislative process.</strong> Products include baseline budget projections and economic forecasts, analysis of the President’s budget, cost estimates, analysis of federal mandates, working papers, and more.</p><p> Quick link to Products page: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products</a></p><p> Quick link to Topics: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/topics" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/topics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The World Bank Data (U.S.)</h3><p><img width="130" height="118" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image484 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1406" data-max-h="1275"/>The <strong>World Bank</strong> provides World Development Indicators, Surveys, and data on Finances and Climate Change.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states" target="_blank">http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>USDA Nutrition Assistance Data</h3><p><img width="180" height="124" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image485 lw_align_right" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1233" data-max-h="850"/>Data and research regarding the following <strong>USDA Nutrition Assistance</strong> programs are available through this site:</p><ul><li>Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) </li><li>Food Distribution Programs </li><li>School Meals </li><li>Women, Infants and Children </li></ul><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics" target="_blank">http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED®)</h3><p><strong><img width="180" height="79" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/79/481_fred-logo.rev.1407788243.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image481 lw_align_right" data-max-w="222" data-max-h="97"/>An online database consisting of more than 72,000 economic data time series from 54 national, international, public, and private sources.</strong> FRED®, created and maintained by Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, goes far beyond simply providing data: It combines data with a powerful mix of tools that help the user understand, interact with, display, and disseminate the data.</p><p> Quick link to data page: <a href="http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series" target="_blank">http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Center for Education Statistics</h3><p><strong><img width="400" height="80" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/400/height/80/479_nces.rev.1407787656.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image479 lw_align_right" data-max-w="400" data-max-h="80"/>The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations.</strong> NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. NCES has an extensive Statistical Standards Program that consults and advises on methodological and statistical aspects involved in the design, collection, and analysis of data collections in the Center. To learn more about the NCES, <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/about/" target="_blank">click here</a>.</p><p> Quick link to NCES Data Tools: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4</a></p><p> Quick link to Quick Tables and Figures: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCES Fast Facts (Note: The primary purpose of the Fast Facts website is to provide users with concise information on a range of educational issues, from early childhood to adult learning.): <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/#</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>NOAA National Climatic Data Center</h3><p><img width="200" height="198" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image483 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 3x" data-max-w="954" data-max-h="945"/>NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) is responsible for preserving, monitoring, assessing, and providing public access to the Nation’s treasure of <strong>climate and historical weather data and information</strong>.</p><p> Quick link to home page: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCDC’s climate and weather datasets, products, and various web pages and resources: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links</a></p><p> Quick link to Text & Map Search: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>