Rural America is getting older, and smaller. The median age is 43, 35 for urban areas. Its productivity, defined as output per worker, is lower than urban America’s. Its families have lower incomes. And its share of the population is shrinking. Rural areas have lost some 3 million people in the last quarter-century.
Over the last several years, many have noticed a distinct political shift positing most of the power in the Northern Virginia area. What you may not know is that the three wealthiest localities in the country are all in Northern Virginia; the U.S. Census Bureau ranks Loudoun County, Falls Church, and Fairfax County first, second, and third based on median household income. Arlington ranks eighth, Fairfax city 10th. That means five of the 10 most affluent localities in the country are in Virginia.
The median household income in Loudoun is $142,299 per year. Contrast that with Dickenson County, where the median income is $29,932. The disparity between its richest county and its poorest county is almost unique to Virginia. Hence, the rural migration. The economic disparity is the main driver and creates an economic incentive for young people to move out of rural Virginia.
Rural areas are hollowing out the middle of the workforce. They contain lower percentages of people in the prime working ages of 25 to 54 because of persistent outmigration.
Rural Virginia populations are declining faster than any other state in the union.
Looking back, in 1980 Arlington and Northampton County both had similar median ages, both in the low to mid-30s. Now, Arlington’s median age is 35, but in Northampton, it’s gone up to near 50. The oldest county in the state is Highland County which has a median age of almost 59. In 1980, it was 33.
A Pew Stateline analysis of recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates shows rural areas lost 226,000 people, a decline of about .5%, between 2010 and 2020, while cities and suburbs grew by about 21 million people or 8%. In Virginia, as of the current census, the rural population decreased 3.5% while the urban population grew by 9.1%.
There is a political aspect. As states like Virginia draw state legislative and congressional districts after the latest census numbers come out, they’re likely to find that rural areas have shrunk in the past 10 years and stand to lose power in statehouses and Congress.
The effects of this net loss also hurt the agricultural sector, “Consolidation of the farming industry is accelerating the decline of rural populations and making farming less attractive to younger generations,” Corwin Heatwole, the CEO of Farmer Focus told The Food Institute. “Farmers are being forced to leave farming and return to cities as a result of unsustainable debt and poor working conditions.”
The reality is that the nation’s metropolitan cities continue to accumulate greater opportunities for meaningful jobs, career advancement, and enhanced quality of life. This is not a new trend and one that will continue.
At the state and federal levels, policymakers need to consider the fact that most rural areas will probably not grow much if at all. It is important to develop policies that assure access to necessary funding and public services for rural residents.