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Rural America booms as young workers leave the cities behind

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When the history for the coronavirus is written, one of the most dramatic narratives will be about this decline of major cities and the simultaneous revitalization of more sparsely populated areas. The recent urban exodus has resulted in an accumulation of human and financial capital, flush with talent and dollars, for rural America. The trend could spark a renaissance in parts of the country that had previously been on the decline.

One of the most debated issues of the last generation was the brain drain of educated young people from rural areas to cities. The pandemic placed this trend in reverse. Fresh college graduates and new parents are leaving urban areas for the suburbs and small towns. Residents are now moving at a rate 20 percent over normal since the start of the pandemic, with young adults moving at higher rates than all older cohorts combined.

The full data is not yet available but census numbers saw that the national population grew slightly last year. Most states that lost residents are home to large cities. New York and Illinois each lost more than a half of 1 percent of population, for instance, while several rural states had significant gains, with Idaho jumping more than 2 percent in just a year. But these numbers only tell part of the story as census data also reveals the dramatic exodus from the metropolitan meccas to the suburbs and small towns.

The net rate of arrivals and departures for major cities is devastating. New York, which lost 4 percent of its population over the last year, has watched about five people leaving for every four people arriving. San Francisco has seen 20 percent more people leaving than arriving, as Seattle and Boston each had about 10 percent more people leaving than arriving.

Rentals and purchases of rural property are reaching new records. Areas within a half day drive of major metropolitan regions are growing. Among the top destinations in the last year are the town of Stowe in Vermont and also Maine for those leaving Boston, Summit County in Colorado for those leaving Denver, the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia for those leaving the Washington beltway, and a number of sites in upstate New York for those leaving Manhattan. In places such as Delaware County, located two hours north of New York, home sales have skyrocketed 40 percent.

History reveals that a national crisis tends to spark an exodus from cities. The decade after the Second World War saw the mass migration of young people from major cities to less populated areas, aided by the advance of cars. Over the last year, the risk of coronavirus infection has been a major driving factor of the current population shift. However, other elements of society have played a role as well. As more white collar workers are given the option to be remote, families have decided to trade those exorbitant costs of living, higher tax rates, and failing public schools of many large cities for the benefits and the natural beauty in rural America.

Workers who were once tethered to office buildings downtown can today trade Brooklyn for Mayberry. Waves of people with much greater incomes than the rural average incomes, combined with lots of their accumulated savings, represent a massive wealth transfer for small towns. It can allow for tremendous economic growth, as well as sharp increases in business activity and property revenue. This windfall could allow these rural areas to keep tax rates steady to fund their vital public programs.

Meanwhile, cities face this existential problem. Can they recover from the pandemic? The answer is not an automatic yes, as before the coronavirus, toxic public policy in cities created unsustainable costs of living to middle income earners. Now that many workers do not have to live in those cities where firms are based, what will these places do to rescue their appeal? If they stay in the mindset of leaders like the mayor of New York, the answer will likely be nothing. Cities that do not adapt will doom themselves for an entire generation or more. These meccas could come back someday, but rural areas will get to enjoy this moment in the sun for now.

Kristin Tate is a libertarian author and an analyst for Young Americans for Liberty. She is a Robert Novak journalism fellow at the Fund for American Studies. Her newest book is “The Liberal Invasion of Red State America.”

Tags America Business Economics Finance Government Labor Market Pandemic

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