The U.S. population growth rate last year was the lowest in 100 years. From 2010 to 2019, rural America lost population for the first time in history, and COVID-19 is likely to further exacerbate this trend, according to a researcher with the NH Agricultural Experiment Station.

Experiment station scientist Kenneth Johnson is a professor of sociology in the UNH College of Liberal Arts. He found that a diminished natural increase in population—when there are more births than deaths—was a major contributor to the slower population growth. In addition, the incidence of natural decrease—when there are more deaths than births—accelerated the trend, particularly in rural America.  

Deaths exceeded births in 46 percent of all U.S. counties—a near record high. Between 2010 and 2019, more people died than were born in 54 percent of the 1,974 rural counties in the nation. In contrast, just 24 percent of the 1,166 urban counties had overall natural decrease.  

New Hampshire was one of only four states to have an overall natural decrease in population that was statewide. Two of the other states were Vermont and Maine.  

“The growing incidence of natural decrease is particularly relevant to New Hampshire and northern New England. If natural decrease continues, the only way New Hampshire can continue to gain population is through migration from other states and abroad,” said Johnson, who also is a demographer with the UNH Carsey School of Public Policy.  

Migration from other states and abroad is exactly how New Hampshire has gained population over the past several years. Johnson said the state has gained enough migrants to offset the natural decrease it has experienced because deaths now exceed births. These migration gains have been modest, but are largest in New Hampshire counties on the outer edge of the Boston metropolitan area as well as in those areas that attract people who seek to enjoy the state’s recreational and amenity-rich areas.   

“Policymakers, planners, businesses, and institutions need a clear understanding of the current demographic situation to plan for the state’s future and implement programs to address the challenges the state faces. Decisions about infrastructure, schools and health care are all dependent in part on how the state’s population is changing. This research provides important information about the demographic changes that New Hampshire is experiencing,” he said. 

Johnson found that deaths are more likely to exceed births in counties where a larger share of the population is older; there are fewer women of child-bearing age; and fertility rates are lower. Rural areas have an older population and fewer women of child-bearing age, which increases the risk of natural decrease. 

“The rising incidence of natural decrease is an important factor in demographic change within the state and nation. It is important that we understand its current and likely future occurrence. And in light of the mortality increase and likely fertility declines stemming from the COVID‐19 pandemic, these findings have significant implications for future rural demographic trends,” he said. Johnson estimated that the increased mortality from COVID-19 in 2020 will result in more deaths than births in 52 percent of all counties and nearly 61 percent of rural counties.  

Johnson said he knew the incidence of natural decrease was on the rise, but the acceleration of the trend in recent years was a surprise. Going forward, he said trying to determine the full implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for the future course of demographic change, including natural decrease, will be a challenge.  

“Given the rising mortality levels in the United States and New Hampshire, it is certain that the incidence of natural decrease will grow in the near future. The longer-term implications are not as clear,” he said. 

This research is presented in the journal Rural Sociology (DOI: This material is based upon work supported by the NH Agricultural Experiment Station, through joint funding of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, in support of Hatch Multi-State Regional Project W-4001 under award number 1013434, and the state of New Hampshire. Additional support came from an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship from the Carnegie Corporation. 

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