May 22, 2018

What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities

1. Demographic and economic trends in urban, suburban and rural communities

Three key demographic forces have reshaped the overall U.S. population in recent years: growing racial and ethnic diversity, increasing immigration and rising numbers of older adults. But these trends are playing out differently in the nation’s rural, urban and suburban communities, touching some more than others.

Likewise, recent U.S. population growth also has been uneven. Urban counties have grown at roughly the overall national rate of 13% since 2000. Suburban and small metropolitan areas have grown more briskly. Rural counties have lagged, and half of them have fewer residents now than they did in 2000.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data, since 2000, U.S. urban and suburban populations have grown at least as much as they did over the prior decade. But the total rural population has grown less than it did in the 1990s, when rising numbers fed hope of a modest “rural rebound.” As a result, a somewhat smaller share of Americans now live in rural counties (14% vs. 16% in 2000).

More recently, the Census Bureau’s population estimates for 2017 show a one-year uptick in the nation’s rural population, though not enough to make up for previous declines. Analysis by demographer Kenneth M. Johnson attributed the increase to gains in rural communities on the edge of metropolitan areas, while more remote counties continued to lose population.

What is an urban, suburban or rural county?

This chapter compares three different types of communities among the nation’s counties, based on a National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) classification system. The analysis covers 3,130 of the nation’s 3,142 counties and county equivalents such as parishes and independent cities. See Methodology for more detail.

Urban core counties: These 68 counties – for example, Miami-Dade County, Milwaukee County and San Diego County – are located in the 53 U.S. metropolitan areas with at least a million people. In the NCHS classification system they are called “large central metro” counties, and about three-in-ten Americans (31%) live in them. These counties are sometimes referred to simply as “urban” or “cities” in this report.

Suburban and small metro counties: These 1,093 counties – sometimes called “suburbs” in this report – include those outside the core cities of the largest metro areas, as well as the entirety of other metropolitan areas. This group includes “large fringe metro,” “medium metro” and “small metro” counties in the NCHS classification system. About half of Americans (55%) live in suburban counties and smaller metropolitan areas, among them New Haven County, Connecticut, DeKalb County (near Atlanta), and Boise County, Idaho.

Rural: These 1,969 counties are located in non-metropolitan areas. Only 14% of Americans live in them. These communities, with a median population size of 16,535, include counties or county equivalents such as Evangeline Parish, Louisiana; Navajo County, Arizona; and Elk County, Pennsylvania.

The flow of people in and out of different types of U.S. counties is affecting their size and composition. Since 2000, more people left rural counties for urban, suburban or small metro counties than moved in from those areas. Because there were not enough new immigrants to offset those departures, rural counties as a group grew only because they had more births than deaths.

At the national level, non-Hispanic whites make up the majority of the population, but a key demographic shift is underway: Whites are a shrinking share of the population and expected to be less than half by midcentury as other groups grow more rapidly. Whites have become a minority of the population in most urban counties since 2000, while remaining the majority in 90% of suburban and small metro counties and 89% of rural ones.

Another key demographic trend, the rise in immigration in recent decades, has raised the foreign-born share of the U.S. population overall and has increased the share in each type of county, although to varying degrees. Immigrants, along with their children and grandchildren, have accounted for the majority of U.S. population growth since 1965. But immigrants are more concentrated in cities and suburbs than in rural areas. On the flip side, the majority of rural counties now have fewer U.S.-born residents than in 2000, a key factor in their dwindling populations.

A third major population driver – the aging of the giant Baby Boom generation – also has varying impacts on different county types. Rural areas have a higher share of adults who are ages 65 and older than urban or suburban counties. But suburban counties have experienced the sharpest increases in the number of older adults since 2000.

The analysis in this chapter relies mainly on Census Bureau data. Current numbers for county characteristics come from the American Community Survey (ACS) combined data for 2012-2016, the latest available. Current numbers for natural increase/decrease and migration flows come from population estimates for 2014, the most comparable year to the ACS data because it is the midpoint of the combined ACS data used in this chapter. See Methodology for more detail.

Suburbs growing more rapidly than rural or urban areas

About 46 million Americans live in the nation’s rural counties, 175 million in its suburbs and small metros and about 98 million in its urban core counties.

As a group, the population in rural counties grew 3% since 2000, less than their 8% growth in the 1990s. Urban county population rose 13% since 2000 and the population in suburban and small metro counties went up 16%, growth rates somewhat higher than in the 1990s.2 The share of U.S. residents who live in rural counties declined in the 1990s and since 2000, but rose in suburban counties during both periods and held steady in urban counties.

Although the rural population as a whole has grown since 2000, the majority of populations in individual rural counties have not. Since the turn of the century, the population declined in 52% of rural counties – 1,024 of 1,969. Among the hardest hit counties were those where the economy is based on farming, about a fifth of rural counties.

Growth factors vary for cities, suburbs and rural areas

There are four main drivers of population gain or loss at the county level: births, deaths, new immigrants coming from abroad or leaving, and people moving to or from other U.S. counties (including immigrants already living in the U.S.). The census numbers show that these factors are affecting cities, suburbs and rural communities differently.

Urban areas gained 1.6 million net new migrants since 2000, with a surplus of immigrants more than offsetting a loss of people who moved out to suburbs or rural areas. As a group, urban counties had 9.8 million more births than deaths, further bolstering their populations.

Suburban and small metro counties have grown since 2000 because of gains in all the drivers of population change. They gained 11.7 million new residents by drawing former residents of U.S. urban and rural areas, as well as immigrants from abroad. On top of that, they had 12.1 million more births than deaths.

It was a different picture for rural counties, however, where move-outs since 2000 exceeded move-ins. As a group, they had a net loss of 380,000 people who moved out. The loss would have been larger – more than 950,000 people – had it not been partly offset by about 600,000 new immigrants. The total population of rural counties grew only through natural increase – that is, they had 1.2 million more births than deaths.

Rural population loss largest in Midwest

Patterns of births, deaths, migration and immigration vary greatly among regions, and generally illustrate the long-term trend of Americans favoring the Sunbelt states of the South and West over Northeastern or Midwestern states. These regional differences persist within each county type.

Among rural counties, a majority in the Northeast and Midwest lost population since 2000, while a majority in the South and especially the West gained population. One factor behind the regional difference is that rural counties in the Northeast and Midwest were more likely than other rural areas to have more deaths than births. These counties also were more likely to have experienced a net loss of migrants – more people moving out than moving in.

The population trends of rural counties are linked to their economic profiles.3 As a group, the nation’s 391 rural farming counties – heavily concentrated in the Great Plains – have lost total population since 2000, while rural counties with other types of economies gained population.

The total population of rural counties with recreation-based and government-based economies grew more since 2000 than the populations of other rural county types. One reason recreation-based counties grew was that they had a net gain of new residents who moved from other U.S counties, the only rural county type to have a gain in net domestic migration. An analysis by the Population Reference Bureau found that rural recreation-based counties were especially likely to have growing numbers of residents 65 and older, while rural farming-based counties were losing residents in that age group.

Among urban areas, the Midwest had the largest share of population-losing counties since 2000: 42% of urban counties in this region, including the ones that encompass Chicago (Cook County, Illinois), Detroit (Wayne County, Michigan), and Cleveland (Cuyahoga County, Ohio), lost population.

Among suburban and small metro counties, about a quarter of the ones in the Northeast and Midwest lost population since 2000, a higher share than in other regions. A majority of Northeast and Midwest suburban counties had a net gain of migrants, but that was mainly due to immigration. A majority had a net loss of residents to urban or rural U.S. counties during this period.

Older adults are a higher share of the population in rural areas than in urban and suburban counties

A key demographic trend shaping the makeup of local populations, as well as the nation as a whole, is the rising number of older Americans. The Baby Boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, began turning 65 in 2011, and all will have reached that age by 2030.

While the population is aging in all three county types, this is happening more rapidly in U.S. suburban and small metro counties. The 65-and-older population grew 39% in the suburbs since 2000, compared with 26% in urban and 22% in rural counties.

Nationally and in each county type, the older adult population grew more sharply since 2000 than any other age group – young children, school-age children, young adults or middle-aged adults. In rural areas, the population younger than 18 declined during this period. As a result, in each county type, adults ages 65 and older now make up a larger share of the total population than in 2000.

As a group, rural counties skew older than suburban and urban counties: 18% of rural residents are 65 or older vs. 15% in suburban and small metro counties and 13% in cities.

Rural counties also have a smaller share of young adults than urban or suburban populations.


Urban and suburban counties are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse at a much faster pace than rural counties

The nation is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, but these changes have been more muted in rural counties compared with urban and suburban ones. The white share of the population fell 8 percentage points since 2000 in the suburbs, 7 points in the urban core and only 3 points in rural counties.

Overall, the U.S. population remains majority white, but not so in urban areas as a group. Among urban residents, 44% are white, compared with 68% in suburban and small metro counties and 79% in rural counties. In fact, whites have become the minority in most urban counties (53% of them are majority nonwhite) since 2000; only about one-in-ten suburban (10%) and rural (11%) counties are majority nonwhite.

While the share of the non-Hispanic whites has declined, the number of whites grew in the nation overall – and in suburban counties as a whole – since 2000. But the white population did not grow as sharply as other groups did, leading to a decline in the white share of the total U.S. and suburban populations.

In urban counties, the decline in the share of the white population was due both to a decrease in the number of whites and an increase in the size of other populations, chiefly Hispanics.

In rural counties, the white population also decreased and other groups also increased in size, but the impact was more modest on the white share of the population because whites are so large a proportion of rural residents.

Immigrants are a rising share of the population in each county type

The foreign-born population is not evenly distributed across county types; immigrants tend to be concentrated in big metropolitan areas. In fact, about half live in urban counties, where they make up a higher share of the total than in suburban or rural counties.

The immigrant share of the population grew since 2000 in the nation as a whole and in each county type. Immigrants were responsible for a larger share of overall growth in rural (37%) and urban (38%) counties than in suburban (26%) ones.

Although rural counties as a group have more U.S.-born residents than in 2000, the majority of individual rural counties have fewer U.S.-born residents than in 2000. There is a large overlap between rural counties that have fewer U.S.-born residents than in 2000 and those that have fewer total residents than in 2000. In the vast majority of rural counties that lost population – 1,011 out of 1,025 – the number of U.S.-born residents declined, and there were not enough new immigrants to offset the loss.

There are gaps in poverty, education and employment across county types

In addition to the three major demographic shifts that are reshaping urban, suburban and rural counties in the U.S. – the aging of the population, changing racial and ethnic makeup and the influx of new immigrants – there are significant differences in other important metrics across community types. These relate to the economic well-being of their residents.

Poverty has increased more sharply in suburbs than in urban or rural counties

Overall, the poverty rate is somewhat higher in rural (18%) and urban (17%) counties than in suburban ones (14%). Poverty rates have risen in all three county types since 2000.

The number of people living in poverty also has risen across community types, but the size of the poor population rose more sharply in suburban counties than in urban or rural ones.

About half the U.S. poor population (49%) lives in suburban and small metro counties, while 34% live in cities and 17% in rural areas.

But looking at the share of counties where at least a fifth of the population is poor – a measure known as concentrated poverty – rural areas are at the top. About three-in-ten rural counties (31%) have concentrated poverty, compared with 19% of cities and 15% of suburbs. The number of counties with concentrated poverty grew for all three county types since 2000.

Growing share of residents of all county types have college degrees

Growing shares of residents ages 25 and older have graduated from college in all types of U.S. communities since 2000, though growth since 2000 was not as sharp as during the 1990s. Rural communities lag in the share of the population with a college degree.

Today, 35% of urban residents and 31% in the suburbs have a bachelor’s degree or more education, compared with 19% in rural counties. Rural areas also trail urban and suburban areas in their share of residents with postgraduate degrees.

In urban and suburban counties overall, college graduates outnumber residents with a high school diploma and no further education, but in the total rural population there are more high school graduates than college graduates. The share of residents who did not graduate from high school has dwindled in all three county types.

Rural counties lost prime-age workers, while urban and suburban areas gained them

Rural counties also trail other types of communities, especially urban counties, on key measures of employment of prime-age workers – those 25 to 54 years old. For example, 71% of rural residents of prime working age are employed, compared with 77% in both urban and suburban counties.

The number of employed adults in this age group (as well as the total number of prime working-age residents, employed or not) rose in urban areas as well as in suburban and small metro areas since 2000, but declined in rural counties overall. Rural counties now are home to a smaller share of the nation’s prime-age workers than in 2000.

The growth in the prime-age working population was particularly sharp in urban areas. As a result, urban counties now are home to a larger share of the nation’s prime-age workers than in 2000.

In suburban areas, which also saw an increase in the number of prime-age workers since 2000, the picture looks somewhat less rosy when analyzed through another lens – the experience of individual counties. Although the number of these workers grew for suburban counties as a group, a majority of suburban counties (59%) have fewer of them than in 2000. Among rural counties, 88% lost prime-age workers since 2000. Only 29% of urban counties did.

Another measure of economic health – average earnings per worker – is highest in urban counties and lowest in rural ones. These average earnings are lower now than in 2000 for all county types, reflecting lingering effects of the 2007-2009 recession, though average earnings in rural areas declined the least. (This more recent measure is based on a five-year average centered on 2014, reflecting earnings for the prior year. The 2000 figure reflects 1999 earnings.)

  1. Growth in the 1990s was measured over a 10-year period, and growth since 2000 was measured over 14 years, using a dataset covering 2012-2016.
  2. This analysis relies on a U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service typology that classifies counties based on six non-overlapping categories of economic dependence: farming, mining, manufacturing, federal/state government, recreation and nonspecialized.