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Rural Birth Rate Dropping

November 10, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Back in the relatively good times of the late 1970s, millions of city people dreamed about moving to the country. A good many did.

For a time, Agriculture Department demographers and many other experts thought a turnaround had come and that rural America would start gaining population again.

But the dream ended when things got tougher in the 1980s, and the countryside resumed its old trend of losing people to the bright lights of cities.

There is some evidence that a modest recovery occurred in the late 1980s as economic conditions improved, according to USDA analysts. But it’s spotty and not necessarily the start of another stampede to the bucolic life.

Also, according to one report, the rural birth rate has slowed and has even lost its traditional edge over city birth rates.

Demographer Calvin Beale of the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service and rural sociologist Glenn Fugitt of the University of Wisconsin- Madison say there are many reasons for thinking the decade of the ’80s ended on an optimistic note.

Part of their study was directed at population changes among the nation’s 1,565 ″non-metro″ counties - nearly two-thirds of the total - that had a net movement of people out of those counties from 1980 to 1988.

The so-called outmigration meant a net loss of 1,965,000 people from these counties during the period. But nearly offsetting these losses was the movement of 1,943,00 people into 817 non-metro counties.

″These two classes of counties tend to be located in different parts of the country,″ the report said.

For example, the outmigration from non-metro counties was widespread in the Corn Belt, Mississippi Delta, many parts of the Great Plains, and Idaho’s Snake River Valley.

Similar losses occurred in southern coal fields and many non-metro industrial counties of the Northeast and eastern Midwest, the report said. Newly depressed mining areas in the West also suffered, including many in Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

The gainers were more concentrated. Several counties in Florida and California grew by more than 40,000 from migration alone, compared to a loss of no more than 12,000 people by any one of those counties.

Other areas that showed increases in county populations included New England, along the South Atlantic coast, Ozarks, Texas hill country, north- central California, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest.

A metropolitan area by government definition one that includes a city of at least 50,000 or is part of a defined urbanized area. Non-metro areas are places that don’t have close economic contact with cities.

Strictly speaking, according to demographers, the terms ″rural″ and ″urban″ are designations that relate to places rather than population density. For example, said one USDA expert, non-metro areas aren’t close to cities. But a metropolitan area could include farms and other ″rural″ land.

The net loss of only 22,000 people by the non-metro counties ″may seem trivial and unbelievably small in light of the serious consequences for the rural economy″ in the early and mid-1980s, the report said.

But when the overall number is broken down into components to show where losses and increases occurred in those years, the statistics are significant.

The decline in non-metro population during most of the 1980s - until the upturn late in the decade - also can be attributed to ″an actual drop in birth rates among non-metro women of childbearing age,″ the report said.

″Although women living in non-metro areas have traditionally had larger families than those in metro areas, there is no longer any apparent differences in the childbearing expectations of the two groups,″ it added.

According to the Census Bureau’s 1988 survey of expected lifetime fertility, women 18 to 34 years old in both groups expected to average 207 lifetime births per 100 women.

″This is a number that is marginally below that needed for replacement of the childbearing generation when mortality of children is taken into account,″ the report said.

Moreover, it was the first time in the 16-year history of the fertility survey that non-metro women did not expect to average more births than metro women.

″Unless the birth rate rises, the non-metro population will ultimately become totally dependent on (incoming migration) for further overall growth or retention of current levels,″ the report said. ″In a number of non-metro counties, that is already happening.″

Researchers did not foresee in the 1980s that the decade would see a reduction in non-metro birth rates.

″The notion that rural and small-town families have more children than do city families is one of the oldest and hitherto most valid premises in demography,″ the report said.

As to the future, there is uncertainty.

″There is room for still further lowering of the non-metro birth rate, especially as more of the smaller post-baby boom birth groups come of age,″ the report said. ″The same reasoning could be applied to the metro population.″

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