Changes on the Plains: Hollowing Out the Rural Midwest and Great Plains

Changes on the Plains: Hollowing Out the Rural Midwest and Great Plains

Rural Population Declines; Micropolitan and Metropolitan Populations Grow

A Center for Rural Affairs report released today examines data from the 2010 Census showing that rural areas in the Great Plains and Midwest continue to lose population, while smaller cities and metropolitan areas continue to expand.

The report, Population Changes on the Great Plains, is the first in a series of briefs examining data from the 2010 Census. The analysis covers a 10 state region that includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa and selected counties in Colorado, Montana, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded here.

"The 2010 Census shows the continued dramatic shift in the region's population from rural to urban,” commented Jon Bailey, Research Director of the Center for Rural Affairs and author of the report. “While this trend is not new, it is striking in its scope and demonstrates the challenges facing many rural communities."

Rural counties, make up the vast majority of the region’s landmass and comprise a significant portion of the region’s population. About one in six of the region’s inhabitants reside in rural counties. And based on the 2010 Census figures, though declining in population, rural counties comprise a larger portion of the region’s population than do micropolitan counties (counties based around a core city or town with a population of 10,000 to 49,000).

Meanwhile, micropolitan and metropolitan counties witnessed significant population surges from both 2000 to 2010 and from 1990 to 2010. Micropolitan counties of the region grew by two percent from 2000 to 2010, and by eight percent from 1990 to 2010. But it was the metropolitan counties—the large cities and their suburbs—that experienced explosive growth in recent years. From 2000 to 2010, metropolitan counties of the region grew by 13 percent and from 1990 to 2010 by nearly 33 percent. The region’s large cities—Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Omaha, Kansas City, Des Moines, Sioux Falls, Colorado Springs, for example—added nearly 3.5 million residents between 1990 and 2010.

The report demonstrates that cities - both large and, in some cases, small - and suburbs are the population growth engines of the region. And the 2010 population figures show the continuation of a long-standing trend of declining rural population. In many parts of the region the decline in rural population is more pronounced than the aggregate figures would lead one to believe. In 112 rural counties of the region population between 2000 and 2010 decreased by 10 percent or more, including 20 or more such counties in Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. More dramatically, 179 rural counties in the region suffered 10 percent or more population loss between 1990 and 2010. Nearly half of the region’s counties, therefore, are suffering a slow, sure emptying.

“Here at the Center for Rural Affairs, we depart from other observers of these trends, however, when it comes to what may be causing the changes we observe... and what can be done about it,” added Bailey.

A 2007 Center for Rural Affairs analysis demonstrated that USDA and Congress have severely over-subsidized the biggest and most powerful farmers while consistently under-investing in rural economic development, spending twice as much on subsidizing the 20 largest farms in each of 13 leading farm states as it invested in rural development programs to create economic opportunity for millions of people in thousands of towns in the 20 rural counties with the most out-migration in each respective state - (the full report - An Analysis of USDA Farm Program Payments and Rural Development Funding In Low Population Growth Rural Counties, a.k.a. Oversubsidizing and Underinvesting... can be viewed or downloaded at: http://www.cfra.org/node/603).

According to Bailey, federal contributions to rural development have been plummeting for years – almost one-third of the USDA Rural Development budget has been cut since 2003. And Congress is considering making even further cuts to already bare-bones rural development programs. For example, one-third of the funds for the popular Value Added Producer Grant could be taken away, as well as all the money for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program. The USDA only uses about 1.7 percent of it’s budget for rural development, equaling about $40.68 for every rural resident.

Instead of continuing this trend, the Center for Rural Affairs proposes a Rural Renewal Initiative for the next farm bill, asking Congress to commit $500 million over five years to a Community Prosperity Fund that the secretary could spend in existing rural development programs. New opportunities are arising all the time in broadband, renewable energy, food systems and ecotourism, and this investment could breathe new life and capital into communities suffering population loss.

This investment could be fully paid for by tightening the limits on farm payments received by the largest farmers – a policy the Center for Rural Affairs has advocated for many years. It could also be paid for by reducing direct farm payments by just 2 percent. Though $100 million dollars per year is small in the context of farm bill spending, it would represent a significant and much-needed increase for rural development.

Established in 1973, the Center for Rural Affairs is a private, non-profit organization working to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches, and rural communities through action oriented programs addressing social, economic, and environmental issues.

08.17.2011