USDA ERS releases 2022 Rural America at a Glance report

James Davis, research agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, discussed the ERS’ Rural America at a Glance report during a recent webinar.

The report looked at population trends, employment, poverty, and income in rural areas. Davis reviewed industry shifts and population trends and how they influence the makeup and availability of the rural labor force, as well as demographic changes like age, race and ethnicity.

According to the report, non-metropolitan areas saw some growth during the pandemic. As well, the rural population continues to age and working age population is declining. Rural industries, although smaller in employment numbers, are among some of the fastest growing. Agriculture and manufacturing output and productivity grew, but not the number of jobs. Diversity within the rural workforce is increasing and experiencing more job growth.

Population growth

Davis looked at annual population growth rates by year for nonmetropolitan economies.

“We see that non-metro population growth rates have declined over time from the early 90s through 2021,” he said.

There are a number of factors that contribute to natural changes in population—births minus deaths and the contribution of net migration.

“The changes in total population growth often parallel these population changes,” Davis said.

In the period between two U.S. census periods—2010 and 2020—population growth rates during these periods were worth looking at. It was near or at negative linear zero for most of these decades.

“This decade was in fact the first decade in which the rural population declined,” he said. “The total non-metro population decreased to six-tenths of a percent in this time.”

At the onset of the pandemic, metro areas’ numbers actually decreased as people began to move to less densely populated rural counties.

In the report, they looked at population growth in three age groups between 2010 and 2020. Age groups included 18 and under, ages 18 to 64 and 65 and older. Researchers found the non-metro population is indeed aging.

“In 2020, there were 5.7% fewer young people than 10 years before,” he said. “There were 9% fewer working age people than earlier and an increase of 22% for those 55 or older.”

From 2020 to 2021, there was a more significant change in population numbers when people moved to non-metro areas.

“And what’s different now—from what we saw is that metropolitan areas also hadn’t seen the population growth rates for young and working age people,” he said. “Population growth rates continued for populations 65 and older and in fact in 2021 for the first time ever, those 65 and older presented one-fifth of the metropolitan population.”

According to the report, an overall decline in the working-age population began earlier in non metro areas compared with metro areas. From 2010 to 2020, the non metro working-age population declined by 4.9% and the population under age 18 declined by 5.7%, while the population 65 years and older grew by 22%. The working-age population increased 6% in metro areas during the 2010s but at a much lower rate than the age 65-plus population, which came in at 37.1%.

By 2021, Davis said, the trend of population declines among children and working-age adults first seen in non-metro areas had extended to the nation as a whole. The increase in net migration into non-metro counties during the pandemic added to the non metro, working-age population. This was not enough to offset the number of residents turning 65 during this same period. The aging of the baby-boom generation not yet aged 65 in 2021

will continue to contribute to the loss of working-age adults through the end of this decade.

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The distribution of workers among various industries in the rural and urban areas, also is changing. Prior to the pandemic, hotels and food service jobs were increasing and by 2019, employment in those categories had grown by more than 18%, according to Davis.

“However, with the onset of the pandemic in 2020, these hospitality jobs lost most of their gains, because people avoided restaurants and hotels due to social distancing,” he said.

In rural areas, the fastest growing employment industries were real estate and leasing services.

“This is the top echelon in 2020. This industry employed 51% more workers than it did in 2001,” Davis said. “The fastest growing industries are smaller in size, however, their strong growth over the past two decades to shift in rural jobs into service industries.”

Employment demographics

Racial and ethnic composition of the world workforce was collected in the American Community Survey, which is administered by the U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Commerce. The figures used to generate this chart place workers in one race or ethnicity category. The workers for the purposes of the statistics of this chart are either Hispanic and non-Hispanic and they’re classified according to their reported race on the survey.

“This gives us an idea of the distribution of workers in our rural economy by race and ethnicity in 2019,” he said. “Hispanic workers were over 80% of the rural workforce in 2019.”

Most of the Hispanic workers were in agricultural and hospitality industries, while Black workers were fairly evenly distributed across industries.

“The fastest growing employment industries are the same as we saw in the prior chart,” Davis said.

What’s interesting to Davis is the rural economy became more diverse in the recovery period following the “Great Recession” in the period between 2012 and 2019.

“Employment of workers increased in many rural industries,” he said. “However, for most industries, employment birth rates are higher for other races and Hispanic workers as a group.”

To conclude

Davis said there are a couple of nuggets to pull from the report, but probably the most important is the rural population is aging.

“In 2021 people 65 and older were more than one-fifth of rural population for the first time. Up from 16% to a decade earlier,” he said. “The working age population declined almost 5% from 2010 to 2020.”

Aging baby boomers, out migration and declining fertility rates have pushed the numbers in the age groups, all the while rural young population numbers declined.

“That isn’t generation of rural children who will grow up to reverse the declines in the working age population,” Davis said. “We found the annual population growth rates near zero over the last decade.”

That trend was reversed with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic due to an increase in rural emigration from 2020 to 2021. Between 2010 and 2020 rural population declined about half a percent. And because of the change in migration patterns, rural population growth rates reversed and the rural population in fact increased by 4% between 2020 and 2021.

“Increase in migration in fact overcame a decrease in the natural population change that occurred due to pandemic deaths,” he said.

The second main set of findings presented in the report was the rearranging of rural jobs and the industries they serve. Industries like manufacturing and the growing services industry saw some changes. According to the report, from an employment perspective, the rural economy in 2019 was dominated by four industries: government (3.7 million jobs), manufacturing (2.6 million), retail (2.5 million), and health care and social assistance (2.4 million).

To see the full report, visit

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].