Job growth in rural, non-metro areas has been nearly zero since the beginning of 2011, while metro employment continues to grow, a new USDA report says.
The report, released annually by the agency's Economic Research Service, details trends in employment, income, poverty levels and population in rural areas using ERS and U.S. Census Bureau Data.
The overall findings? Rural America is in a growth pinch – reflecting trends that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called "troubling."
"(The report) highlights the critical need for a new Food, Farm and Jobs Bill that will help to reverse troubling demographic and economic patterns in rural America," Vilsack said in a statement Thursday, following the report's release.
"The fact is, too many people in rural America live in persistently-poor areas. Too many people still have trouble finding a good job. The populations of too many small towns and rural communities are shrinking," he said.
Dwindling populations in non-metro areas, the report found, could be reflective of fewer jobs and lower wages when compared to metro areas. But overall, the recession 2007-2009 may be the root of the trouble.
The report says that between April 2010 and July 2012, the estimated population of non-metro counties as a whole fell by just under 44,000 people. Though a seemingly small number, the report said it marks a sizeable downward shift from growth experienced between 2004-06 – and is "without precedent."
The shift highlights a growing challenge for small towns: population growth from natural change (births minus deaths) is no longer sufficient to counter net migration losses when they occur, the report says.
Further, such population loss can reduce the demand for jobs, diminish the quality of the workforce, and raise per capita costs of providing services at the community level.
While reasons for slowing rural economic expansion vary from one county to the next, the report cites widespread losses in manufacturing, either from moves overseas or technological changes, as a key contributor to population downturns. In fact, manufacturing losses are considered the driver of population declines in 21 eastern states between 2004-06 and 2010-12.
A similar trend is noted in some Great Plains areas, as the farming population grows older. However, some of the declines have been countered by the extraction and exploration for energy.
Vilsack said the population situation is what underscores the need for policy changes in D.C.
"This is just one more reminder that we need a national commitment to create new opportunities in rural America that keeps folks in our small towns and reignites economic growth across the nation," he said, noting that the farm bill could be the ticket to doing just that.
"The Farm Bill would invest to grow agricultural exports, and strengthen new markets for agriculture that hold job creation potential," he said. "It would spur new opportunities to manufacture products and energy from homegrown materials. It would invest in the future of Main Street businesses and communities. "
"Rural America needs a new Farm Bill now, to meet these modern challenges head on and chart a pathway for future economic success across our rural areas," he concluded.
To view the report, click here.