If you live in a rural community in Missouri and it feels like your neighbors are moving away, you might be right—but they aren’t going as far as you might think. A recent report from the Jefferson City News Tribune notes that according to the Census Bureau, at least 52 Missouri counties and St. Louis City lost population from July 2017 to July 2018. That means almost half the counties in Missouri had negative population growth.
But while population loss in roughly half of Missouri’s counties sounds terrible, there's more going on here.
A great deal has been written about the growth of big cities across the country, but news outlets are slowly picking up on a trend that shows small and middle-sized cities gaining steam with young people. Think cities like Waco, TX and Knoxville, TN as opposed to Austin, TX and Nashville, TN—cities that aren’t necessarily state population hubs but that play an important role in their regional economies.
In fact, it seems that young people’s attraction to big cities is often overstated. Research increasingly suggests they are equally drawn to the less-costly option of smaller cities and suburban areas. Census Bureau data show that suburban growth is outpacing large city growth, with large city growth tapering off.
How is this playing out in Missouri? While most rural counties and Saint Louis City saw population declines, many medium-sized cities—Springfield, Columbia, and Lee’s Summit to name a few—have seen population increases according to the Census Bureau. Since Missouri’s total population only grew by a small percent, most of this population change is attributed to intrastate migration.
So while it is true that rural populations are dipping, it’s at least in part because of regional population consolidation in cities not far from where residents formerly lived.
And when you think about it, this migration trend makes a lot of sense. Small and medium-sized cities provide many employment, entrepreneurial, and social opportunities that may not always be available in rural areas, and these cities are often more affordable and community centered than big cities. While this trend isn’t great for rural counties—that is, the political subdivisions themselves—it is good for the people moving toward better economic and social prospects. As farms in rural areas become more productive and require fewer laborers, having access to city resources and opportunities will be all the more important for these residents.
Unfortunately, Missouri has struggled with overall population growth in recent years. During that same July 2017 to July 2018 time period mentioned above, Missouri was 29th in the nation in population growth, with a paltry 0.3% increase. This rate is consistent with the low population growth rates that we’ve seen for years. So, while this trend of intrastate migration is positive, we can’t forget that Missouri still struggles to attract new residents.