W4001: Social, Economic and Environmental Causes and Consequences of Demographic Change in Rural America

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Inactive/Terminating

W4001: Social, Economic and Environmental Causes and Consequences of Demographic Change in Rural America

Duration: 10/01/2017 to 09/30/2022

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

Rural populations are changing in both size and structure. Population change matters, but demography is not destiny. Changes in population size and characteristics affect a wide range of social and economic outcomes, but these changes are not automatic, nor mechanistic, and are mediated by institutions, local community preferences and historical and cultural legacies. Research is needed to examine the causal pathways that link population change to rural inequality, prosperity and well-being.

We propose to undertake a comprehensive analysis of current population processes affecting U.S. rural areas and provide to stakeholders policy-relevant research findings on the demographic causes and consequences of socioeconomic and environmental change. The proposed project’s work will build on output from its predecessor, W3001, which focused on demographic impacts stemming from the housing market collapse and Great Recession.

A significant portion of W3001 research focused on two topics identified by stakeholders as critical concerns: linkages between job loss and demographic change; and demographic dynamics affecting the rural housing market. In addition to work on basic demographic processes, this project is similarly designed around two, closely related topics: the interrelationships between rural population change and the prosperity of rural places; and the interrelationships between environmental shocks and stressors and the well-being of rural people, places, and institutions. Within our two broad topic areas, specific research questions will be determined, in part, by participant expertise and, in part, by group discussions with stakeholders proposed as a Year One activity.

The need as indicated by stakeholders
This committee is dedicated to addressing rural population issues that matter to policy makers, communities, and local residents. The objectives identified for this proposal come, in part, from information gathered from stakeholders during meetings, workshops, briefings, and field studies held in the past five years. We plan to continue this approach, given the emergence of new concerns on the part of stakeholders throughout the country. We will take a community-engaged approach to finalizing our specific research questions and to integrate extension educators, policy makers, and community groups into our broader research team.

The Carnegie Foundation defines community engagement as the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (e.g., local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity. Following this paradigm, we propose to spend the first year of this project working with multiple stakeholders, sharing our research objectives and identifying specific questions within that agenda. We will work through regional centers, policy makers, and placed-based organizations to build knowledge that increases rural community capacity to respond to challenges they face.

As part of our first two annual meetings, we will hold sessions where we engage participants in discussions aimed at understanding (from the community stakeholder point of view) important demographic issues facing rural communities. Also, to address more regional and place-based concerns, we propose to work with Regional Rural Development Centers to set up focus group discussions of issues linking rural development, demographic change, and socioeconomic well-being. Committee members who attend these discussions will share summaries of their findings with other committee members electronically.

Importance of the work, and what the consequences are if it is not done
Rural residents populate every region of the country, from counties bordering suburbs to remote and isolated areas. Rural areas encompass agricultural regions as well as areas where workers depend mostly on manufacturing or tourism. They include prosperous areas with rapidly growing populations as well as chronically depressed locales experiencing population decline. Accordingly, our research plan is national in scope but employs a comparative perspective, and relies on a multidisciplinary research team located throughout the U.S. to ensure familiarity with diverse rural demographic, social, and economic settings.

Demographic change in rural America is an obvious but understudied response to economic dislocation and stressors and shocks caused by environmental change. Our research will document these linkages in the vast expanse of rural America that includes 75 percent of the nation's land area and 54 million of its residents. In so doing, we will contribute to the development of more informed policy to address the needs of rural people, places and institutions, especially as they have been affected by the recession. The key topics of this proposal: inequality, prosperity, and environmental change are at the forefront of contemporary policy considerations in rural America.

Local, regional, state and federal government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) depend on up-to-date interpretations of population trends. Information from the proposed research will allow for faster understanding and anticipation of present and future public needs. This extends to informing decisions and judgments of direct service providers, including educational administrators, cooperative extension personnel, medical and social workers, journalists, and others influential in community affairs. For example, a school administrator will benefit from understanding the degree to which lower immigration rates mean fewer school-age children. Members of business and public utility sectors can use knowledge of demographic shifts to conduct needs assessments for their organizations and enterprises.

New demographic trends sometimes require shifts in policy recommendations for stakeholders. For instance, decreases in in-migration in response to job losses will lower demand for schools, hospitals, or family-oriented social services, depending on the changing composition of migration flows. Insights from the research proposed here will contribute to better understanding and anticipation of present and future public needs as they are influenced by changes in population size, geographic location, and socioeconomic composition.

Failure to address these issues could diminish the response capabilities of local government officials, regional economic development officers, extension personnel, and other stakeholders. It could hinder public policy efforts at the Federal and State level as well, due to the decrease in systematic knowledge of just how rural people and communities are evolving as a result of demographic change. Without knowledge of regional differences, for instance in how differential migration rates affect income inequality, policy formation may be critically misdirected, and, consequently, even exacerbate inequality.

The technical feasibility of the research
Recent W-3001 accomplishments (e.g., new policy brief series, numerous journal articles, successful grant proposals) demonstrate our ability to collaborate effectively. The group does not envision any new technical issues that would hinder the accomplishment of the proposed research objectives. Over the past five years, we have taken advantage of new communication technologies to expand our disciplinary range and more effectively interact with public and private stakeholders across the country.

Most members have extensive experience compiling and analyzing large databases, bringing together demographic and economic data from several sources and geographic scales of inquiry. Many have skills in spatial analysis of demographic data and using geographic information systems (GIS) to map and analyze population patterns. Additionally, several members will be taking advantage of qualitative skills to conduct field studies and in-depth interviews with rural community leaders and residents.

The advantages of doing the work as a multi-state effort
The multi-state framework provides a unique venue for interdisciplinary research that is both national in scope and committed to understanding the regional and local context of demographic change. A national perspective is essential for analyzing rural population issues from a policy standpoint because demographic change occurs within the framework of the nation's entire settlement system. Moreover, the national perspective permits comparative analysis of the nation's diverse regions, thereby providing information useful for modifying policies for varying social, economic, and environmental contexts.

Specific areas cannot be studied outside of their larger contexts. Regions are as interrelated as are rural, suburban and urban areas. Our committee's expanded membership has widened the geographic scope of our research beyond the traditional focus we have had on the rural West. Our national-level research activities are now informed by in-depth knowledge of regions as diverse as the northern Great Plains, the Pacific Northwest, the upper Great Lakes, the Mississippi Delta, and New England.

The multi-state approach allows each researcher to take advantage of the unique and diverse skills of all committee members and their affiliated institutions, including departments and population centers at Cornell, Connecticut, Kansas State, Michigan Tech, Mississippi State, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Texas-San Antonio, Utah State, Wisconsin, and Middlebury College. Geographers with USDA's Economic Research Service and elsewhere provide the research committee with excellent geographic information systems capabilities. Committee members from Cornell, Utah State, and Wisconsin, among others, have formal Extension responsibilities, and their expertise provides the group with a solid understanding of stakeholder issues and the planning requirements of state, county and regional agencies. Finally, the group enjoys excellent relations with professionals at the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal data centers.

What the likely impacts will be from successfully completing the work
The demographic analysis undertaken by this committee provides information about the social and economic context within which public policy operates in our changing rural society. Mapping and explaining regional differences in population processes during the Great Recession will draw attention to the ways in which demographic impacts play out unevenly and how economic decline and recovery have been experienced differently across various segments of the nonmetropolitan population, hitting historically disadvantaged groups hardest.

The project's primary goal continues to be the production of this type of policy-relevant research that informs users about current demographic trends and their implications for rural policy. We aim for broad readership among policy makers and plan to continue our strong record of outreach, that recently has included briefings to the White House Council of Economic Advisors, several Congressional offices, Governors' staff and task forces, the National Academies of Science, the Federal Reserve Bank, several USDA agencies, the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, and many state and local organizations. Our work does not evaluate the operation of particular public policies or practices, but it does provide essential contextual information that helps policymakers decide where public intervention is most needed, and the alternative forms such actions might take.

Related, Current and Previous Work

Research related to Objective One: Document nonmetropolitan population change, examine the dynamics of these changes and investigate their social, economic, and environmental causes and consequences.

Our objective here is to examine the causes and consequences of recent rural demographic change and the demographic processes, such as migration and fertility, which account for changing patterns of population redistribution throughout the United States. Demographic change in rural America is far from monolithic. To analyze longitudinal rural demographic change over such a vast and diverse region, researchers need to be cognizant of the complex interplay between migration and natural increase that influences contemporary rural population redistribution trends and of the social, economic and environmental forces that both influence demographic change and are impacted by such population change (Johnson and Cromartie 2006).

The urgency of examining recent demographic trends in rural America has been heightened by the economic shocks that have buffeted nonmetropolitan areas since the turn of the 21st century. The Great Recession and its aftermath are of particular concern. Our conceptual approach recognizes that shifting patterns of migration, immigration and natural increase are driven to a significant degree by changing economic conditions (Beale 2000; Easterlin 1978, 1980; Lobao et al. 2007). A large demographic literature recognizes that many long-distance migration decisions are rooted in economic restructuring (Lu 1999; McHugh et al. 1990). For example, inter-regional and rural-urban patterns of net migration have been shaped historically by the uneven distribution of job growth (Greenwood 1997), unemployment (Foulkes and Schafft 2010; Gebremariam et al. 2011), earnings (Borjas 1987), and poverty (Oropesa and Landale 2000). However, economic forces are not the only drivers of migration in rural America. Recreational and retirement migration to high-amenity, environmentally sensitive areas remain an important factor in recent nonmetropolitan population redistribution trends in some rural areas (Johnson and Cromartie 2006; Partridge 2010).

Migration trends are central to understanding rural demographic change. Net migration shifted in unanticipated ways during the recession and post-recession period. The demographic implications of the rural economic downturn and its aftermath differed across the nation. Some localities experienced rapid population growth due to migration fueled by booming economies prior to the recession.  However, population growth sharply diminished as the recession took hold. In contrast, in rural areas that were not gaining population prior to the recession (i.e., farm communities and rural manufacturing counties), migration losses slowed resulting in less population loss or population gains during the recession (Johnson, Curtis and Egan-Robertson 2016). It remains unclear whether these atypical migration trends will continue in rural areas. Given the importance of migration to future rural demographic change, demographers need a fuller understanding of contemporary migration trends.

Immigration, which contributes to overall migration change, has become increasingly important to rural areas. It also slowed during the recession after more than a decade of unprecedented increases (e.g., nearly 1 million legal immigrants per year) (Martin and Midgley 2010). Even though immigration slowed during the recession, the foreign-born population in the United States nevertheless increased from 31.1 to 42.3 million, a 36 percent increase between 2000 and 2014 (Colby and Ortman 2014). The influx of new immigrants and their geographic dispersion to rural areas, uneven spatial distribution, and concentration in a subset of the industrial and occupational sectors (e.g., low-wage employment), all require further investigation if we are to fully understand their implication for future rural demographic change.

Internal migration rates, and in particular inter-state migration rates, have declined by nearly 50% over the last 40 years (see Cooke 2013). This decline is not fully explained by either economic cycles (e.g., the Great Recession) or the changing composition of the population (e.g., an aging population) (Cooke 2011). Rather, evidence suggests that long-term structural changes are associated with increased rootedness (Fischer 2002). Factors that might influence it include: how the widespread adoption of information and communication technologies that might reduce geographic mobility; and increasing family complexity that makes migration more difficult (Cooke, Mulder, and Thomas 2016). These issues are important to rural areas in that they may alter the demographic and human capital mix of rural populations.

The ebb and flow of migration within and between nonmetropolitan and metropolitan areas has become increasing important as fertility levels have dropped below replacement levels and natural decrease has taken a large demographic toll (Johnson, 2011). Fertility declines coupled with an increasing number of deaths to the aging rural population caused the growing incidence of rural natural decrease and will, ultimately, lead to slower population growth. National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) data document a substantial and sustained fertility decline during the recession and post-recessionary period. The number of U.S. births dropped by 8 percent from an all-time high of 4,316,000 in 2007 to 3,978,000 in 2015. Fertility rates fell sharply during this period, with the most substantial fertility declines among Hispanics and young adults. There were fewer births between 2008 and 2015 even though the number of women of child-bearing age increased.

These fertility declines during and after the Great Recession were larger than at any other time in the last 30 years. The net result was 3.4 million fewer births between 2008 and 2015 than would have been expected had fertility remained at 2007 levels (Johnson 2016). In rural areas where fertility has been diminishing for decades (Johnson 2011), this recent sharp decline in births associated with the Great Recession and its aftermath has serious implications for future nonmetropolitan population redistribution trends. Thus, continued monitoring and detailed analysis of these trends is imperative.

The demographic future of rural America is also being influenced by the growing diversity of the rural population (Lichter 2012). Rural America has always included a significant racial/ethnic minority population, but its influence is growing. The unprecedented growth and geographic dispersion of Hispanics is among the most important demographic forces in recent demographic history. The current diaspora of the Hispanic population from established gateways (in the Southwest and elsewhere) to new destinations in nonmetropolitan America has fueled considerable recent rural growth (Massey 2008; Lichter and Johnson 2009).

A large literature documents the widespread geographic dispersal of Hispanics over the past two decades—both in metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas (Lichter 2012; Massey 2008; Nelson et al. 2009).  Hispanics are having an outsized demographic and economic impact in growing numbers of rural small towns, where they often remain residentially isolated from the native population (Crowley and Lichter 2009; Lichter, Parisi, and Taquino 2016).  Hispanics represented just 7.6 percent of the nonmetropolitan population in 2010, but accounted for 62.9 percent of the entire nonmetropolitan population gain between 2000 and 2010 (Johnson and Lichter 2016). 

Hispanics clearly are driving population change and diversity in rural America. Most previous research has focused on Hispanic immigration; here we propose to continue the work initiated in the previous W-3001 project to monitor how natural increase and net migration among both the Hispanic and non-Hispanic population contribute to the nation’s growing diversity.  In addition, we will continue to examine how age- and race-specific net migration patterns vary across the rural-urban continuum as well as how they stimulate change in local population structures and residential segregation by race/ethnicity (Johnson and Winkler 2015; Parisi et. al 2015; Winkler and Johnson 2016).

Research related to Objective Two: Describe the interrelationships between contemporary rural population change and inequality, prosperity and well-being of rural people, places and institutions

Rural people, places, and institutions face multiple interrelated enduring and emerging challenges to prosperity and well-being. Differences in employment, income and poverty, educational attainment, family structure, health and mortality, and access to essential amenities and services are driven by complex interactions between economic and political structures, human capital and relative vulnerability of residents, and location along the rural-urban continuum (Bailey et al. 2014; Brown 2014; Brown and Schafft 2011; Brown and Swanson 2003; Foulkes and Schafft 2010; Lobao et al. 2016; Lobao and Saenz 2002; Lobao 2004; Lobao et al. 2007; Smith and Tickamyer 2011). Slow-moving stressors that have manifested over the past 40 years (e.g., industrial transformation, wage stagnation, rising income inequality, population aging, immigration) and short-term economic and policy shocks (e.g., the Great Recession, safety net policy/program changes) affect rural people and places differently than their urban counterparts due to greater concentrations of vulnerable groups, less diversified economies, thinner and weaker institutions, and fewer local services in rural areas.

Decades of industrial restructuring have led to higher shares of low-wage jobs and higher rates of job displacement, underemployment, and nonstandard work in rural areas (Gibbs 2002; Glasmeier and Salant 2006; Jensen 1999; McLaughlin and Coleman-Jensen 2008; Slack and Jensen 2002; Slack and Jensen 2014). For the past 60 years, the share of men between the ages of 25 and 54 either working or actively seeking work has fallen precipitously, and rates of social security disability receipt have risen (Black et al. 2016), especially in rural areas (ACS 2015; Jensen and Jensen 2011).

Poverty is persistently high in many rural areas, especially central Appalachia, the Delta South, the Rio Grande Valley, and Native-American majority regions (USDA ERS 2016). A full seven years after the official end of the Great Recession, rural poverty remains above pre-recession levels (Schaefer et al. 2016). Poverty among rural racial/ethnic minorities also remains higher than rural white poverty (Green 2014), and since the Great Recession, spatially and racially concentrated poverty has intensified and is characterized by increasing income-based segregation and the reemergence of a racial/ethnic minority underclass (Lichter and Schafft 2016; Lichter et al., in press).

Not only is a larger share of the rural poor unemployed, but the risk of poverty among those who are employed has increased since the start of the 21st century (Thiede et al., in press). Rural residents are less likely to have college degrees and receive lower wage returns to education than urban residents (Slack 2010). Safety net supports are under-utilized and provide less amelioration in rural areas (Jensen 1988; Jensen and Eggebeen 1994).

“Income packaging” (combining earnings, safety net programs, and other sources) and work in the informal economy are also common in rural areas (Jensen et al. 1995; Lichter and Jensen 2000; Sherman 2009; Slack and Jensen 2010), but we know little about how these and other economic survival strategies have changed over time and/or vary by demographic group or across labor markets. There are also growing concerns that our official poverty measures do not adequately capture the lived experiences of economically struggling rural people and families (Thiede et al. 2015), and in contrast to poverty, we know little about rural-urban variation in income and wealth inequality and intergenerational mobility. Ultimately, disproportionate and rising shares of rural workers are unable to achieve economic security and have fallen into a growing pool of “working poor” (Slack 2010; Thiede et al. 2015; Thiede et al., in press). These trends raise questions about the short- and long-term demographic, economic, social, and health consequences of a climate in which lower shares of rural men are working, work does not necessarily lead to economic stability, and the safety net does not meet the needs of poor residents.

As evidenced by their inclusion in all four Rural Sociological Society decennial volumes on rural people and places, economic shocks and stressors have also long contributed to population decline and chronic outmigration of young adults from many rural areas (Bailey et al. 2014; Brown and Swanson 2003; Dillman and Hobbs 1982; Flora and Christenson 1991). But in the “new” rural America, population change is increasingly characterized by more than just outmigration (Barcus and Simmons 2012; Brown 2014; Cromartie and Parker 2014; Johnson 2014; Sharp and Lee, in press). Structural shocks and stressors have led to new rural population changes, challenges, and opportunities, including immigration, retirement and amenity migration, and rising morbidity and mortality.

Immigration and retirement migration often provide opportunities for growth and renewal (Carr et al. 2012). Hispanic population growth has reversed or ameliorated population decline and “youthified” many rural places (Donato et al. 2007; Johnson and Lichter 2012). Yet some rural communities struggle to accommodate the educational, health, and social services needs of this population, and rural Hispanics in new destinations are economically and residentially disadvantaged (Lichter et al., in press; Monnat, in press, Lichter et al. 2015; Monnat and Chandler, in press).

Like immigration, retirement and natural amenity migration can have positive economic, social, and civic impacts on rural communities (Glasgow and Brown 2008; Nelson et al. 2014). But health and other services are often unavailable for older populations (Sanders et al. 2016; Thiede et al. 2016), and the in-migration of affluent retirees can lead to residential segregation and resource neglect of low-income and young adults (Winkler 2013; Winkler and Johnson 2016). Rural residents already face affordable housing shortages, a reality that is likely to intensify with retirement and amenity migration and the housing demands of domestic energy workers (MacTavish et al. 2014). Research is needed on the respective roles of these new types of rural population change on prosperity, well-being, and resource inequalities within and between rural communities, including distributional impacts and differences in the “lived experiences” of those in demographically changing communities.

Physical and mental health are also affected by structural stressors and shocks, but they receive less attention than other measures of well-being in the rural social sciences. Research on intersections between health, race, and rurality is especially sparse (Green 2014). Those who have explored rural-urban differentials in health and mortality generally find that rural residents have worse self-rated health and higher chronic disease prevalence than their urban peers, largely explained by demographic and socioeconomic factors (Berry 2014; Monnat and Beeler-Pickett 2011; Morton 2004; Sparks 2012; Yang et al. 2011). Health insurance rates are lower, health services (including reproductive and prenatal care) are more limited, and food insecurity and obesity rates are higher in rural than in urban areas (Bennett et al. 2013; Berry 2014; Tanaka et al. 2014).

Rural areas also face new health challenges. The past 15 years have witnessed rising morbidity and mortality (primarily from drugs, alcohol, and suicides) in midlife among non-Hispanic whites (Case and Deaton 2015). Preliminary evidence suggests that residents of small cities and rural areas are driving these trends (Monnat and Rigg 2016; Monnat 2016). There is significant conjecture about the roles of rising rural white anxiety, distress, and despair on these trends (Chen 2015; Saslow 2016; Schrager 2016; Vance 2016; WNYC 2016), but empirical research is needed to document the relationships between structural and demographic change, economic distress, and declining physical and mental health in rural areas.

Rural population change and well-being are also tied to national, state, and local policies. Shocks to the safety net, like the replacement of AFDC with TANF, often have unanticipated harmful effects on rural families and communities (Parisi et al. 2011; Singelmann et al. 2002; Tickamyer et al. 2007; Tickamyer and Henderson 2011). The Affordable Care Act (ACA) represents a new shock. Nearly two-thirds of uninsured rural residents live in a state that did not expand Medicaid (Newkirk 2014), and rural residents have fewer insurance marketplace options than urban residents (Cox et al., 2015). Together with a rising incidence of rural hospital closures and tightening Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates, these trends necessitate research on differential impacts of the ACA on changes to health insurance coverage, health care access and use, and health outcomes among different demographic groups along the rural-urban continuum.

In the face of policy shocks and population changes, effective local governments are critical to ensuring resilient and sustainable rural communities (Johnson et al. 1995; Lobao and Hooks 2003; Lobao et al. 2014; Warner 2006, 2009). With the U.S.’s shift toward devolution, local governments have assumed greater responsibilities for economic development and public services and greater administrative and fiscal control over the social safety net (Lobao and Kraybill 2005; Lobao et al. 2014). These intergovernmental changes often come with few, if any, additional resources. Programs to support local families (e.g., child and elder care, health services) and economic development are typically delivered through local governments (Lobao et al. 2012; Partridge and Rickman 2006). But empirical research on local governments focuses almost exclusively on metropolitan areas. The few studies on rural local governments find they tend to be smaller, lower capacity, and offer fewer services (Johnson et al. 1995; Lobao and Kraybill 2005; Warner 2006), often necessitating private charities to pick up the slack (Molnar et al. 2001).

Labor force participation rates are only beginning to improve (though not uniformly) since the recession (Berube and Liu 2016), and recent downturns in the energy industry have contributed additional stress (Sanzillo and Schlissel 2016). Rural local governments have historically faced weak tax bases and high service needs, but little is known about how they have fared over the “recovery” period and whether rural demographic and/or economic changes have further eroded their capacity. Further, little work has assessed the direct impact of local governments in facilitating rural well-being (Lobao and Hooks 2015). Lobao et al. (2012) found that strong county fiscal autonomy and centralization contributes to lower poverty. As well, strong public schools induce social and economic benefits (Francis et al. 2014) and return migration to rural areas (Cromartie et al. 2015). It is important to assess factors that contribute to the strength of local governments and, in turn, impacts of local governments on rural people and places. 

Finally, rural people and places are more heterogeneous than ever. The “new” rural America is characterized by significant variation in racial/ethnic and age composition, economic well-being, and livelihoods. More economic, social, and political interactions are occurring at the interface of rural and urban spaces (Lichter and Brown 2011; Lichter and Brown 2014). Moreover, different processes are likely at play in generating outcomes related to inequality, prosperity, and well-being at different spatial scales (e.g., neighborhoods, counties, labor markets, states) (Curtis et al. 2012). Research is needed to describe and explain how long-term stressors and new shocks are differentially associated with rural population dynamics, inequality, prosperity, and well-being among different demographic groups, in different spatial units, and across the rural-urban interface.

Research related to Objective Three: Describe the interrelationships between environmental shocks and stressors and the well-being of rural people, places, and institutions

Population scientists have a clear interest in and the capacity to inform discourse on the varied human implications of environmental shocks and stressors. Environmental changes can occur suddenly (e.g., flood, hurricane, tsunami) or they can occur gradually (e.g., climate change, land degradation, sea level rise). Some environmental shocks are the result of natural disasters, while others are technological disasters. The phenomena of interrelated natural-technological disasters are increasingly prevalent, and these shocks often lead to long-term stressors. Importantly, environmental shocks and stressors expose and often exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities.

Both fast- and slow-onset environmental shocks and stressors impact human populations. For example, the frequency of coastal floods has risen along with sea levels, most especially recurrent “nuisance” floods that are minimally inconvenient and economically burdensome (Ezer and Atkinson 2014; Moftakhari et al. 2015; Strauss et al. 2016; Sweet and Park 2014). Additionally, there is some evidence that the severity of weather events that impact coastal populations will increase in the coming decades (Webster et al. 2005). In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused more than 1,000 deaths and forced an extraordinary re-sorting of the Gulf of Mexico’s population through migration, becoming an exemplar of why environmental change is relevant to population science.

Across the globe, there are a growing number of extreme weather events and severe conditions that are of a magnitude on par with Hurricane Katrina. The small island nation Tuvalu confronts mounting challenges in living conditions due to sea level rise and natural disasters (Hunter and Nawrotzki 2016; Shen and Gemenne 2011). In 2004, a tsunami in the Indian Ocean resulted in 220,000 deaths and missing persons in the region,(Ishiguro and Yano 2015) and in 2011, Northeast Japan suffered nearly 20,000 deaths from a massive tsunami (Nakahara and Ichikawa 2013). There are less direct, although equally severe impacts of environmental change including infant mortality from water salinity in coastal Bangladesh (Dasgupta, Huq, and Wheeler 2015), post-traumatic stress disorder in Sumatra after the 2004 tsunami (Frankenberg et al. 2008) and in the UK following severe flooding (Paranjothy et al. 2011), injury and illness resulting from Hurricane Ike (Norris, Sherrieb, and Galea 2010), and complications resulting from interruptions in prenatal care in the aftermath of Hurricane Gilbert (Duff and Cooper 1994).

This large and growing body of research demonstrates that environmental change is disruptive for human populations. Thus, just as identifying specific locations at risk of experiencing dramatic change is a high priority in climate change science (Wu, Yarnal, and Fisher 2002), identifying specific populations at risk and potential population responses to such risk must become a high priority in population science. The issue is especially relevant to rural people, places, and institutions in the United States given the unique interrelationships between the environment, livelihoods, health, and demographic events and processes. Moreover, the uneven distribution of resources and infrastructure necessary for effective planning, adapting, and mitigating in response to the potential disruptive effects of environmental change makes the study of the human dimensions of environmental shocks and stressors a paramount issue for rural America.

Among the numerous approaches for analyzing population impacts of environmental shocks and stressors, the livelihoods framework (De Haan and Zoomers 2005; de Haan 2012; Scoones 2009), community capitals framework (Flora, Flora, and Gasteyer 2015), and environmental hazard vulnerability/resiliency frameworks (Cutter, Boruff, and Shirley 2003; Qin et al. 2015; Turner et al. 2003) may be particularly useful for integrating and synthesizing research findings within this research objective. Connecting the environmental and socioeconomic contexts in which people live and work combined with the intentional development pathways at multiple levels of analysis, the livelihoods framework directs attention to opportunities and barriers in accessing and utilizing material (natural and built), cultural, social, and economic forms of capital.

Of special concern is whether individuals and households have the capability to achieve security, quality of life, and well-being. Further informed by ecological, sustainability and vulnerability/resiliency models, the sustainable livelihoods variant to the framework considers the ways in which development arrangements lead to greater vulnerability or, conversely, resiliency in the face of shocks and stressors. The community capitals framework shares similarities with the livelihoods framework, but focuses attention on these forms of capital at a collective level and with consideration of the interaction between different actors (Gutierrez-Montes, Emery, and Fernandez-Baca 2009). Within this frame, analysis is often focused on the ways in which underinvestment in diverse capitals may contribute to a “spiraling” down toward further vulnerability while diversified development efforts and collective action can lead to upward spiraling for greater resiliency (Emery and Flora 2006). These distinct yet related frameworks offer a conceptual means through which the separate activities pursued by our research group can be unified.

Through their respective projects, members of our research group will explore the interplay between environment and population. They will focus particular attention on core demographic issues surrounding migration and health impacts, coupled with institutional contexts and organizational responses.

Concerns about environmental impacts are largely centered on coastal areas and cities (Handmer et al. 2012) since population density in coastal areas is on average three times the global mean (McGranahan, Balk, and Anderson 2007; Small and Nicholls 2003), thus putting a large number of people and assets in jeopardy. Indeed, 13 of the top 20 most populated cities in the world are major port cities and house more than one million residents each (Bosello and De Cian 2014). Currently, an estimated 26 to 31% of the U.S. total population is coastal (Ache et al. 2013). However, connections between places through migration makes environmental change relevant to coastal and inland populations alike (Curtis and Schneider 2011; Curtis, Fussell, and DeWaard 2015; DeWaard, Curtis, and Fussell 2015; Fussell, Curtis, and DeWaard 2014).

Adaptation, the ability to compensate for changes in the physical environment (Ford, Berrang-Ford, and Paterson 2011), is a primary coping strategy for communities vulnerable to environmental shocks and stressors, and migration is one adaptation strategy (Tacoli 2009). Curtis and Schneider (2011) use a traditional cohort-component model to generate estimates of future populations for specific coastal communities at risk of inundation from sea level rise, and find that migration is implicated in two ways. First, some existing migration networks likely will no longer be viable given the concentration of migration flows between areas that share similar inundation hazards. Second, areas not directly impacted by sea level rise will be indirectly affected through population redistribution given existing migration flows between coastal and inland counties.

A series of studies on the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf of Mexico migration system (Curtis, Fussell, and DeWaard 2015; DeWaard, Curtis, and Fussell 2015; Fussell, Curtis, and DeWaard 2014) have demonstrated that the impacted areas recover populations through changes in the migration system; the Gulf area’s migration system became more spatially concentrated, more urbanized, and more intense (increase in flows) in the years following the hurricanes. What is missing from these studies is a focus on how the unique combination of population, social and economic forces in rural areas might spell different outcomes than those found for more urban locations and populations.

Research has demonstrated a wide range of health impacts from environmental change and the accompanying shocks and stressors, including both mental and physical health (Kutner 2010). Among them, the study of reproductive health and birth outcomes might be particularly informative. Pregnant women and newborn children are especially vulnerable to shocks and stressors, including direct exposure to pollutants as well as the embodiment of psychosocial and economic pressures associated with change. Meta-analysis of birth outcomes associated with natural and man-made disasters (e.g., hurricanes and terrorist attacks) suggests that while there is much more research to be conducted, an association is apparent between exposure to disaster and reproductive health (Zotti et al. 2013). Furthermore, a study of New Orleans mothers following Hurricane Katrina showed that fear of future hurricanes was associated with both gestational age of children and their birth weight (Harville et al. 2015).

It is well understood that mothers facing contexts of heightened social and economic disadvantages are more likely to have poor birth outcomes and/or experience infant mortality (Collins et al. 2009; Sparks, McLaughlin, and Stokes 2009). Although limited, research also suggests that mothers experiencing changes in the socioeconomic conditions of where they live (i.e., through processes of gentrification) are more likely to have poor birth outcomes (Huynh and Maroko 2014). Preterm birth, low weight births, and infant mortality are widely studied in the development literature as indicators of broader development and quality of life.

Characteristics of place and their influence on various population outcomes are longstanding interests among population scientists and, perhaps especially, rural demographers. Environmental shocks and stressors are attributes of place. Recent methodological advances and novel datasets have enabled researchers to make new progress and ask innovative questions on perennial issues surrounding place-level effects on health outcomes. For example, using conditional autoregressive Bayesian spatial modeling techniques, researchers have shown that place-level inequality matters for understanding patterns of mortality rates among US counties (Yang, Jensen, and Haran 2011; Yang and Jensen 2015). Importantly, place-level impacts, such as concentrated disadvantage and social capital, extend beyond local boundaries and spillover into neighboring areas. This work highlights the significance of features of place for human well-being and population dynamics across places. Moreover, it reflects the interest and expertise of our research group to effectively investigate the pressing issues confronting rural people, places, and institutions by applying these innovative methodological strategies to questions about the population impacts of environmental shocks and stressors.

Resiliency, the ability to undergo change and maintain existing function and structure (Nelson, Adger, and Brown 2007), among rural populations and communities disrupted by environmental shocks and stressors is a significant dimension of the population-environment nexus, as it brings to focus the role of organizational and institutional forces in shaping population well-being. Utilizing novel survey data from the Community Oil Spill Survey (COSS) in combination with US Census Bureau products, Cope and Slack (2016) developed a place-based index of social vulnerability that highlights the influence of natural resource employment.

The new measure brings to light the multidimensionality of the concept of social vulnerability, and shows important differences among people and places that are more and less dependent on natural resources. For example, although negative mental health impacts generally diminished over time, they were more persistent among residents of places with high levels of social vulnerability; resilience was muted and vulnerability was amplified. Other research drawing from the COSS (Cope et al. 2016) demonstrates the implications of environmental shocks on the relationship between people and institutions. Analyzing perceptions of trust and blame, the authors find evidence of a persistent and greater likelihood of blaming and distrustfulness of institutional actors among fishing households (households directly and severely impacted by the oil spill) as compared to other survey members.

A growing body of research has examined the challenges facing resource-constrained communities and the need to consider the structural forces that shape individual and household capacity to respond to environmental shocks and stressors (Thiede 2016). For example, Thiede and Brown (2013) show that social structure and social relations interacted to affect human responses to Hurricane Katrina. Attachment to place, measured as local ties versus extra-local ties, lowered the propensity to evacuate. In contrast, extra-local ties enhanced the likelihood of evacuation, likely by reducing the obstacles to moving. Additionally, information attainment was systematically uneven across the population and, importantly, influenced the likelihood of evacuation; people who received fewer warnings were not able to evacuate in time.

Research conducted on community and regional responses to immediate relief and longer-term redevelopment in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demonstrates the importance of local organizations in mediating the influence that environmental shocks and stressors may have on people in their everyday lives. Recent research on the human dimensions of forest insect disturbance in rural communities of Alaska and Colorado shows that local socioeconomic and biophysical contexts, and the capacity of community residents for collective action had consistently strong effects on community activeness in response to beetle outbreaks (Qin and Flint 2010; Qin, Flint, and Luloff 2015). Additionally, combining data from mixed-methods studies interpreted through a livelihoods framework, community-based groups with appropriate ties and resources and other forms of capital can help to reduce vulnerability in the face of environmental change (Green, Gill, and Kleiner 2006; Green, Kleiner, and Montgomery 2007; Kleiner et al. 2010). Similar patterns have been identified in rural communities with harsh environments that face long-term poverty and disinvestment, such as the Mississippi Delta (Kerstetter, Green, and Phillips 2014).


  1. Document nonmetropolitan population change, examine the dynamics of these changes and investigate their social, economic, and environmental causes and consequences.
  2. Describe the interrelationships between contemporary rural population change and inequality, prosperity, and well-being of rural people, places and institutions.
  3. Describe the interrelationships between environmental shocks and stressors and the well-being of rural people, places, and institutions.


All three objectives share methodological approaches and strategies for data collection and analysis that we developed in the predecessor committee. The research will still depend in large measure on aggregate level, comparative, and cross-sectional analyses of population change and redistribution using data from various federal sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, USDA's Economic Research Service, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Committee members will collaborate to build databases that all members can access.

Most of the work will be at the county level of analysis and will employ nonmetropolitan counties as a proxy for rural and small town areas. As in previous projects, survey research, case studies, focus groups, in-depth interviews and other methods of data collection will elaborate the information obtained from the aggregate level demographic analysis. These more intensive approaches strengthen and deepen explanations, and provide additional, localized meaning to the aggregate quantitative information.

To describe the changing distribution and composition of the rural population, we will use several public data sources. These include, but are not limited to the following: Vital Records and Statistics; Decennial Censuses; Net Migration Rates for US Counties; Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Statistics of Income Division (SOI) County-to-County Migration Data; and American Community Survey (ACS) Estimates. With the release of the US Census Bureau’s 2014 ACS five-year estimates, rural researchers had their first access to non-overlapping five-year estimates, providing the basis for longitudinal comparisons. New five-year estimates are scheduled for release each year, allowing for assessment of change on a range of demographic, social, housing, economic, and health variables. Beyond geographically aggregated data (with the county-level being the major focus for the projects to be undertaken under this proposal because of their comparability with other data sources), the ACS also provides public use microdata that can be analyzed to identify individual and household characteristics and patterns, and to compare between public use microdata areas.

While the new five-year estimates are a welcome addition to the work of rural researchers, the particular methodological issue of sample size persists. The ACS is based on samples that have significant margins of error in the many rural areas that have small populations. It is imperative that researchers recognize the implications of this uncertainty of estimation. The proposed project will explore the implications of estimation error for researchers examining rural demographic change. Data on unemployment and related labor-market indicators come from Bureau of Labor Statistics sources, including their Local Area Unemployment Statistics. In addition to the standard demographic and economic data sources, we will also use CDC mortality data (NCHS) and health data from the National Health Interview Survey and National Study on Drug Abuse and Health.

Analysis of core demographic data will contribute to a better understanding of the impacts of environmental change on populations, as well as the ways in which these impacts vary by the socioeconomic characteristics and development interventions of specific places. Using outcome indicators such as migration and health outcomes, combined with institutional contexts and organizational responses, models can be developed and tested to inform program and policy development. This will require multi-method research with statistical analysis of quantitative data combined with comparative case studies.

Aggregate level analysis is frequently affected by spatial autocorrelation; we will use spatial regression analysis, where appropriate, to ensure that parameter estimation is carried out with models specified to account for autocorrelation in the data. As before, we will use geographic information technology (GIS) to visualize and explore the geographic variability of demographic and socioeconomic phenomena. As specific research questions are finalized, other data sources and methodologies will be incorporated.

Measurement of Progress and Results


  • Peer-reviewed research publications and policy-related issue briefs Comments: The members of this committee have strong records of scholarly publication, and we anticipate producing a large number of articles in refereed journals and book chapters covering specific substantive issues related to the three objectives. We will produce policy-related issue briefs disseminated through a variety of outlets to make research results quickly and easily accessible to policy makers and stakeholders. We are also increasingly adept with social media and will use various platforms to improve access to publications, issue briefs, and rural datasets.
  • Poicy-oriented conference Comments: We expect to organize one or more policy-oriented conferences, most likely in Washington, DC. Our successful experience shows that such conferences can be readily organized and effectively publicized. A national conference on population issues is currently being explored. Summary materials and workshop procedures will be produced to share with a wide audience.

Outcomes or Projected Impacts

  • Demographic analysis is essential for effective public policies and development practices in rural communities. As stated above, the research proposed here does not evaluate specific policies or practices, but it does provide information that is crucial to good decision-making. The demographic analyses provided by such research provides contextual information that will help public policy makers and local residents design or modify programs to address important social issues and problems, and to decide where public intervention is most needed. Moreover, the national and regional level studies produced by this committee enable state and local decision makers to consider their respective situations in a comparative context.
  • Results from previous research were disseminated widely among members of Congress, USDA rural development program managers, state legislatures, major non-governmental organizations, and regional, state, and local stakeholder groups. We expect to continue this level of outreach and to expand our contacts to include groups with particular interests in rural employment and inequality.


(2018):As described above, we will spend the first year of this project working with Regional Rural Development Centers and policy groups to finalize a specific set of research questions within the broader scope of our objectives. Discussion results will be summarized and distributed to committee members, discussed electronically, and specifically addressed at the annual committee meeting at the end of the year. A policy-relevant research agenda on population, poverty, and markets will be elaborated through discussions with experts at USDA, the Census Bureau, and, possibly, the Department of Labor.

(2019):Having established our research agenda, we will proceed with data collection and exploratory analyses. We will integrate data from different sources and standardized geographic definitions.

(2020):Research covering all three objectives will be carried out. This will serve as a foundation for most of our peer-reviewed articles, issue briefs, and other publications. Planning will commence on a policy conference to be held in the final year of the project, including negotiations with potential sponsoring agencies. For example, NIH is a potential partner for research support on rural health issues. USDA or EPA may be potential partners for workshop on environmental shocks in rural places.

(2021):Production of articles, monographs, policy briefs, and user-friendly social media postings will continue through this year, as will presentations at professional meetings and to stakeholder groups. A nationwide workshop on the Changing Population of Rural America: Issues for Policy and Practice is being planned for Washington D.C. during the project’s final year. The workshop will be for national level policy makers and agency personnel with responsibilities for rural development.

(2022):The final year will include a policy conference and the wrap up of joint publications, policy series, peer-reviewed articles, and other outputs by the committee.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Outreach Plan

The W3001 committee has had, and will continue to have, a very active and effective outreach and engagement capability. Books, articles, publications, and coordinated presentations at academic conferences (e.g., Rural Sociological Society, Association of American Geographers, Population Association of America) will be used to disseminate research findings to scholars. In 2016, the committee initiated a new policy briefs series titled “Population Trends in Post-Recession Rural America.” The University of Wisconsin’s Applied Population Laboratory in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension produces the series.

The policy briefs are intended to build bridges between the committee’s social science research and community development practitioners throughout the nation. The committee also has active involvement with other policy brief series that reach wide audiences within and outside universities and think tanks, including, for example, the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy, Cornell’s Community and Regional Development Institute, and the University of Mississippi’s Office of Sustainability.

Social media has become increasingly important as outlets for spreading the results of research and the group has its own Twitter feed and Facebook accounts. When new research is reported either through policy briefs or via more traditional outlets (i.e., published papers or presentations at meetings), the results are posted on social media in an easily digestible format.

The committee will work through existing Extension networks and collaborate with the four Regional Rural Development Centers to share results and, where feasible, identify regional themes for future research. The committee will continue to disseminate results widely to state, regional and local government personnel and to private sector decision-makers, non-governmental rural development professionals, and cooperative extension professionals.

Committee members have gained significant visibility as trusted authorities on demographic matters. As a consequence, they are in high demand for interviews by national, regional and local media. Other methods of dissemination include website publications, listservs, professional forums, and policy workshops. A nationwide workshop on the Changing Population of Rural America: Issues for Policy and Practice is being planned for Washington D.C. during the project’s final year. The workshop will be for national level policy makers and agency personnel with responsibilities for rural development.

In sum, the group is committed to sharing the outcomes of their research. It does so throughout a wide range of academic, social, government, and extension outreach strategies.


Our committee elects a Chair and Vice Chair from attendees at the annual project meeting. The Chair coordinates the activities of the project and facilitates general meetings; the Vice Chair serves when the chair is unable to do so and is the Chair-elect. The Chair and Vice Chair serve at least two-year terms to provide continuity. A Local Arrangements Coordinator organizes the committee's annual meetings and conducts educational sessions for the group, as appropriate. A Secretary submits minutes of annual meetings, coordinates submission of annual reports, and helps maintain the group’s website. A listserv, based at Utah State University and supervised by a committee member, facilitates interaction among committee members and has long functioned as the principal venue of discourse among committee members in lieu of face-to-face meetings.

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Kenyon College, Macalester College, McGill University , Michigan Technological University, Middlebury College, New York - Syracuse University, other:LA, Pennsylvania - Pennsylvania State, Southern Rural Development Center, University of Mississippi, University of Montana, University of Oklahoma, University of Texas at San Antonio
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