Non-Metropolitan Patterns of Population Change in the United States, 2020-2022

Earlier this year Axios published a revealing map of population change in all counties in the United States from 2020 through 2022. This map, unlike the ones that I made and posted earlier this week, allows one to assess population change in non-metropolitan as well as metropolitan areas. As can be easily seen for the United States as a whole, rapid growth was concentrated in three areas: western and central Florida; the suburban and exurban fringes ringing the largest cities of Texas; and a western belt encompassing Utah, Idaho, and western Montana. Other interesting patterns can also be discerned. To clarify them, the rest of this post will examine state-and regional-level map-details extracted from this national map.  

Let us begin with Appalachia. Several recent articles (for example, this one by Aaron M. Renn) have noted that southern Appalachia is doing much better than northern Appalachia on almost every metric. It is therefore no surprise that most counties in southern Appalachia grew during this period while many if not most in the north shrank (that is, if “north” is defined as all areas north of the northern borders of North Carolina and Tennessee).

Appalachia is often placed in the same cultural and socio-economic category as the Ozark Plateau, located mostly in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Both areas are characterized by steep terrain, heavy forests, and a backwoods folk culture that is both widely denigrated and romanticized. In terms of recent population change, the Ozark Plateau clearly groups with southern Appalachia. But as can be seen on the paired maps below, most counties in this region lost population, or remained relatively static, during the 2010 to 2020 period. The only substantial growth then was in its two metropolitan areas, Springfield in southwestern Missouri and Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers (home of Walmart and several other major corporations) in northwestern Arkansas. When the COVID pandemic hit, however, people began to relocate to the region’s rural counties. I was intrigued by the very rapid growth shown for Wright County. A quick Internet search, however, returned almost nothing other than a single highly misleading post from World Population Review, which claimed that the county’s population dropped during this period. But as the table and graph posted below indicate, this information was improperly extrapolated from a tiny snippet of information from an earlier period. I find it amusing that this reputable website claims that Wright County lost exactly 63 people every single year between 2011 and 2023! Such are the dangers of automated demographic interpretation.

Recent population growth in the Ozark Plateau is reflected in the expansion experienced in other lightly populated, scenic parts of the country. Most of Maine, the northern lower peninsula of Michigan, and northern Wisconsin also saw rural population growth in this period. An interesting place to examine this phenomenon is in the Dakotas. As the maps posted below show, most counties in far western South Dakota saw major population gains from 2020 to 2022 whereas most of those of western North Dakota saw significant declines. This pattern is easily explained. Western North Dakota experienced massive growth from 2010 to 2020 due to the oil boom in the Bakken Formation. That boom came and went (although it may return), and as a result the region’s population dropped sharply after the 2020 census. Western South Dakota, in contrast, contains the Black Hills, a scenic region with high amenity values. It is therefore no surprised that it saw a boom during the COVID period. It is important to note, however, that many counties in the western Dakotas have so few people that the gain or loss of a small number can make a dramatic difference on this map.

Differences between states are also apparent on the national COVID-era population-change map. Consider, for example, the neighboring states of Illinois and Indiana. Although Indiana and Illinois are politically very distinct, their non-metropolitan counties are quite similar. But recent population change at the county level differs greatly across the state border. Only five counties in Indiana had more than a one-percent population loss during this period, whereas only three counties in Illinois had more than a one-percent gain. The financial woes of Illinois are probably a significant factor here.

Idaho and western & south-central Montana show stark difference between the 2010-2020 and the 2020-2022 population-change maps. In the earlier period, quite a few primarily rural counties lost population. In the latter, only tiny Wheatland County, Montana (population 2,069 in 2020) lost more than one percent of its residents. From 2020 to 2022, many counties in this region, both metropolitan and rural, saw population gains of more than five percent.

California makes an interesting contrast with Idaho and Montana. Population loss from 2020 to 2022 was concentrated in the affluent coastal region, with San Francisco County exhibiting a drop of 7 percent, the largest in the country. But quite a few low-population, peripheral counties also experienced big drops, with Lassen declining by more than five percent. Intriguingly, some of these scenic counties with high outdoor-amenity values had experienced demographic booms in the final decades of the twentieth century. But as can be seen in the tables posted with the map below, this growth had essentially come to an end by 2010. Both Tuolumne and Mono counties, adjacent to Yosemite National Park, lost more than one percent of their population between 2020 and 2022. Evidently, state boundaries matter considerably in relocation decisions, and California is no longer a very attractive state.