Millions of people travel to Stone County, Missouri each year to go boating on Table Rock Lake or to visit the popular Silver Dollar City amusement park. The county’s economy relies primarily on recreational activities and supports a community of about 31,000 people.
But like many rural counties, Stone County’s population declined from 2010 to 2020. Sheila Thomas, President and CEO of the Table Rock Lake Chamber of Commerce, was increasingly concerned about the aging population and planned to launch an economic development plan in March 2020 to help attract a younger workforce. All of these plans were put on hold when the pandemic hit.
Despite worries about the county’s economic stability, particularly following the closure of one of its largest employers, Thomas was in for a surprise.
People flocked to Table Rock Lake.
“What we found during the pandemic was people discovered they could work from home,” Thomas said. “So we didn’t just see retirees coming in, but families and younger people coming in from the coast saying, ‘I can run my business from here.'”
The county’s tax revenue fell only slightly in the first year of the pandemic, and perhaps more surprisingly, its population grew 1.5%.
Stone County wasn’t the only rural county whose population grew in the first year of the pandemic. A recent peer-reviewed article in Rural Sociology suggests that more than a third of rural counties in the US grew from April 2020 to July 2021 after a decade of population decline.
Most of the rural counties that saw population growth were in recreation or retirement destinations like Table Rock Lake in Stone County, where economies depend on bringing people to outdoor activities like boating and fishing, or natural amenities like lush green hills and to lure picturesque coasts.
How COVID-19 played a role in population change
COVID-19 accelerated mortality rates and slowed birth rates, exacerbating an existing trend of natural population loss in rural or non-urban areas. But as more people moved to rural areas, the US rural population did not decline.
“This is extremely unusual historically, and so we’re still trying to understand all the nuances of it and whether it’s just a short-term thing or if it will reflect longer-term changes,” said Kenneth Johnson, the author of the article and Professor of Sociology and Senior Demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.
“But it’s certainly unusual and surprising, even for someone like me who’s spent my professional life studying rural America,” he added.
The rural US population grew by about 0.13% or 77,000 people between April 2020 and July 2021, while urban areas grew by only 0.1%. Although it’s a slight increase for the country’s rural population, Johnson said it’s rare for the population increase to be greater than in urban or metropolitan areas.
Urban areas tend to grow faster than rural areas because they often have more births than deaths or a natural increase, while people also often immigrate. Meanwhile, rural areas tend to have older populations, meaning more deaths and fewer births, or a natural decline. and people often emigrate.
In his research, Johnson found that rural populations in more than 80% of recreation and retirement-dependent counties have grown because of people immigrating to those areas, compared to 43% of agriculture-dependent counties and 36% of manufacturing counties dependent districts.
“The big story in a lot of farming communities is that young people who were born and raised in the US don’t want to work on farms,” said Tom Mueller, rural sociologist and demographer at the University of Oklahoma.
Farm counties, like those in the Midwest and Great Plains, have been declining in population for years, he said. Not only has farming become increasingly mechanized, meaning fewer workers are needed, farming counties are more remote and offer fewer amenities than humans, Mueller said.
Johnson said various factors determine why people leave or stay in a place, but he suggested that new opportunities for people to have flexible hours and work remotely resulting from the pandemic are likely to contribute to rural population growth contributed in the United States.
“If you worked on an assembly line or in a meat packing plant, you didn’t have a choice — you went to work anyway,” Johnson said. “But if you could work remotely, why not do it somewhere more attractive to you?”
The pandemic may also have discouraged some rural residents planning to move to a more urban area, Johnson said, while seasonal visitors may have turned their second homes in rural recreational or retirement destinations into primary residences.
“This is a very turbulent time — economically, demographically, epidemiologically,” he said. “That’s why it’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on with migration.”
How likely is it that the rural population will continue to grow
Because his study only looked at the change in rural populations in the U.S. over the 15 months after the 2020 census, it’s too early to say whether the upward trend will continue, Johnson said.
“COVID is having an impact on American life: it’s fewer births, it’s less mobility, it can make people think seriously about what’s important to them,” he said. “So we just have to see how this will be reflected in rural America’s demographic trends for years to come.”
Some rural sociologists and demographers believe that US rural population growth is an outlier that will eventually return to its normal trend.
“There was a very unique point during COVID where everything that was good about a city suddenly wasn’t,” Mueller said. “But I don’t think that’s a long-term thing.”
Mueller pointed out that Johnson’s research suggests that rural counties in close proximity to urban areas would be more likely to grow. At the same time, he said rural areas are unlikely to see further growth unless more investment is made in infrastructure such as broadband internet.
“I don’t see COVID creating the resurgence and full revitalization of rural America,” Mueller said. “And I don’t see it as some sort of continued slow growth either, unless we can really invest and improve our rural infrastructure.”
Xcaret Nuñez reports on agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KOSU and Harvest Public Media and is a member of the Report For America Corps.
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.
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