Rural Counties Showing Decline

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Latest census information shows a trend that should be surprising to no one -- rural counties in Arkansas are losing people.

In fact, in the period between 2010 and 2012 more than two-thirds of the counties in Arkansas showed population declines.

Virtually all the counties of Eastern Arkansas lost population in the past two years. The only notable exceptions are Greene and Craighead counties, which showed growth rates of two and three percent respectively.

Craighead County's growth places it in the top rung of the state with only four counties in urban areas exceeding that rate. They are Benton and Washington counties in Northwest Arkansas and Faulkner and Saline counties in Central Arkansas. All are in the four percent growth range.

In fact, three of the counties rank in the top 100 in growth in the United States -- Bentonville is 67th, Faulkner 72nd and Saline 95th.

The numbers reflect the migration of Arkansans to where the jobs are, especially in the manufacturing and service sectors, as opposed to agriculture. While the state still remains primarily rural compared to others, metropolitan centers are growing with the Little Rock area now boasting a population of 717,666 and the Northwest Arkansas Corridor at 482,200.

These trends continue to present challenges to the small towns of Arkansas, along with comparable communities throughout the nation (especially in the Central Plains States).

The website (Keep It Rural) details another aspect of population decline affecting rural counties more significantly than urban -- deaths over births. A study shows that 46 percent of rural counties had more deaths than births in the 12 months ending in July 2012.

That trend was evident in much of Arkansas, especially the rural counties across the northern tier of the state, home to many elderly residents. Once again Craighead and Greene counties bucked those numbers, with more births than deaths.

By the way, the Daily Yonder website in an excellent source of articles and information relevant to rural communities.

One of the articles there indicates that one rural state, North Dakota, is an outlier from the population and economic decline evident in other similar areas.

The reason, of course, is the oil and gas boom occurring there. The article notes many small town banks in North Dakota are experiencing deposit rate increases in the 20 percent range. Those bankers are proceeding with caution on loans, realizing the oil boom could reverse based on worldwide economic forces.

But in the meantime, it is boom time in North Dakota. Williams County in that state had a remarkable 19.2 percent growth over the two-year period.