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A Demographic Lifeline? Immigration and Hispanic Population Growth in Rural America


Can immigration save rural and small town America? Our goal is to highlight the new racial dynamics of population change in nonmetropolitan areas, where slowing population growth rates since 1990 eventuated in widespread depopulation during the post-2010 period. We use 3141 counties as the unit of analysis, tracking population change data over the 1990 to 2017 period. Our results, based on decennial census counts and population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, show that Hispanic population growth has been spatially ubiquitous, occurring in both declining and growing nonmetropolitan counties. Hispanic growth has slowed but not reversed chronic declines in rural population. Significantly, the growth of Latinos benefited a majority of historically depopulating or declining nonmetropolitan counties as well as nonmetropolitan counties that have continued to grow. Our analyses also reveal substantial heterogeneity in patterns of population change in nonmetropolitan America. Latino population growth often makes the difference between overall county population growth and decline. Nearly 200 nonmetropolitan counties grew during the 2010–2017 period, but only because Hispanic population increases offset non-Hispanic population declines. For these counties, which account for about 10 percent of all nonmetropolitan counties, Latinos clearly provided a demographic lifeline. Hispanics population gains were usually insufficient to reverse population declines in historically depopulating counties but nevertheless slowed the pace of decline. Hispanic growth was greatest in counties where the population was growing, resulting in a demographic multiplier effect.

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  1. 1.

    We recognize that all Hispanics or Latinos are not immigrants—the so-called first generation or foreign-born population. However, demographers often refer to the Hispanic immigrant stock, which is comprised of both first- and second-generation (i.e., U.S.-born of foreign-born parents). By this definition, 83 percent of all adult Hispanics are of immigrant stock (Pew Research Center 2004), the population group that dominates the new patterns of net migration and redistribution in rural America (Lichter and Johnson 2012). In 2014, immigrant stock accounted for roughly 2/3rds of the Latino population, including children (Waters and Pineau 2016).

  2. 2.

    In this paper, we use Hispanics and Latinos interchangeably, recognizing that Hispanics is a term typically used by the Census Bureau in demographic reports or by demographers, but also is sometimes found objectionable among racial and ethnic scholars who prefer Latino/a/x.

  3. 3.

    After every decennial census, the universe of metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties is updated to reflect country population growth over the proceeding decade. Our analysis is based on the same universe of nonmetropolitan counties throughout the 1990–2017 study period.

  4. 4.

    Several hundred counties that would have been classified as nonmetropolitan under previous OMB definitions are included among metropolitan areas here. Reclassification has, over the course of several decades, removed many fast growing counties from the universe of nonmetropolitan counties and reclassified them as metropolitan. Our goal is to keep the focus squarely on today’s nonmetropolitan counties and the historically demographic processes that underlay recent trajectories of population growth and decline.


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Correspondence to Daniel T. Lichter.

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Earlier drafts of this paper were presented at the conference of the European Society for Rural Sociology, Trondheim, Norway, June 25-28, 2019, and at the annual meetings of the Rural Sociological Society, Richmond, VA, August 7-10, 2019. The authors acknowledge the helpful comments of the co-editors and the external reviewers.

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Lichter, D.T., Johnson, K.M. A Demographic Lifeline? Immigration and Hispanic Population Growth in Rural America. Popul Res Policy Rev 39, 785–803 (2020).

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  • Population growth
  • Immigration
  • Nonmetropolitan
  • Migration
  • Depopulation
  • Rural
  • census