Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In this synthesis of historical demographic trends in rural and urban areas of the Great Plains, an updated version of the regional definition used by the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture is used. In all, 484 counties in eleven states are included, all of them within the boundaries delineating the Great Plains region. Comparisons are offered for those portions of the Great Plains in Canada.

In the United States, counties are subdivided into metropolitan and nonmetropolitan based on the 1993 Office of Management and Budget definition. Metropolitan areas contain a core county with a city of at least 50,000 and any adjacent counties that are socially and economically integrated with the urban county. To avoid problems of compatibility over time, any county classified as metropolitan in 1993 is here considered metropolitan throughout the entire study period, even though it might have been nonmetropolitan under an earlier definition. Of the 484 Great Plains counties, 444 are classified as nonmetropolitan and 40 as metropolitan. The terms metropolitan and urban are used interchangeably here, as are the terms nonmetropolitan and rural. Such usage is consistent with the extensive research literature examining recent population redistribution trends but differs from the Census Bureau definition of urban, which includes individuals residing in places of 2,500 or more.

In 1870 approximately 127,000 people lived in the Great Plains of the United States. The population grew rapidly over the next six decades. By 1930 more than 6.8 million people resided in the region. Migration fueled much of this population gain as the great agricultural potential of the region attracted millions of settlers. Natural increase also contributed to the rapid population gains, as high rural fertility produced a significant excess of births over deaths.

In 1870 nearly 80 percent of the Plains residents lived in rural areas; in 1930 almost 74 percent of the Plains population still lived in rural areas, which had gained more than 4.9 million residents during the period. Places that were urban or would soon become urban grew by 1.8 million during the same period. However, after 1930 the growth patterns in urban and rural areas diverged: the rural population peaked in 1930, whereas the urban population continued to grow.

Between 1930 and 1940 the American Great Plains suffered a population loss of 208,000. More than 75 percent of the counties in the region lost population during the decade. Most of the loss resulted from net out-migration. The Great Depression and severe drought forced many rural families to abandon farms, stores, and other enterprises. In such a difficult situation, parents chose to have fewer children, resulting in a lower rate of natural increase. Population declines were most severe in rural areas, which lost 363,000 residents; fewer than 20 percent of the nonmetropolitan counties gained population. For example, in the Texas Panhandle, twenty-three of thirtytwo counties lost population; the nine that gained were oil- and gas-producing counties. By contrast, the urban counties of the region added 154,000 people.

Growth resumed again during the 1940s, when the region as a whole gained 558,000 residents. Natural increase fueled almost all of this growth. Migrants continued to leave the rural areas, attracted by the recovering industrial sector of the nation's cities. The growth that did occur was selective geographically: only 35 percent of the counties actually gained population, and nearly all of that growth was in urban areas. Overall, urban counties gained 631,000 residents, more than enough to offset the 72,000-person loss in rural areas. Only about 31 percent of the rural counties grew during the decade, compared to 78 percent of the urban counties.

Population growth accelerated during the 1950s. However, the substantial gain of 1.1 million was concentrated in only 35 percent of Plains counties. All of this growth resulted from the substantial natural increase associated with the baby boom, because the region actually experienced a net migration loss of 322,000. Though the region as a whole gained population, rural areas saw a slight population decline during the 1950s caused by a staggering migration loss of 753,000. This loss represents 16 percent of the population residing in rural areas at the beginning of the decade. The exodus of young adults was particularly severe: rural areas lost more than 229,000 twenty- to twenty-nine-year-olds between 1950 and 1960, or 44 percent of the age group. Because this age group produces most of the children, the out-migration had significant demographic implications and represented a substantial loss of human capital.

Between 1960 and 1970 the population of the Great Plains grew by only 385,000, the smallest decennial gain on record, apart from the 1930s. Natural increase was sufficient to offset net out-migration (611,000) in the area as a whole, but overall only 23 percent of the counties experienced population gain. While the rural population declined by 231,000 in the 1960s, the urban population grew by 668,000. The rural losses resulted from a net outflow of 708,000, which was only partially offset by natural increase. By contrast, urban areas gained 97,000 by migration and 571,000 by natural increase. By the end of the 1960s the population residing in metropolitan areas of the Great Plains exceeded that in rural areas for the first time in history.

At the national level, the 1970s witnessed a remarkable nonmetropolitan demographic turnaround characterized by widespread inmigration and substantial population increase. The Great Plains participated in this reversal of trends to a certain extent. Rural population grew for the first time in four decades. However, the rural gain of 241,000 was almost entirely due to natural increase. Outmigration continued from rural areas, albeit at a dramatically reduced rate. In contrast, urban areas had a net migration gain of 473,000 and a natural increase gain of 486,000. This substantial urban growth, coupled with modest rural growth, produced an overall population gain of nearly 1.2 million in the 1970s.

The turnaround did not last long. The region only grew by 379,000 during the 1980s, and only 21 percent of the counties increased their populations, the fewest in history. Outmigration again became common in the 1980s, with a net loss of 562,000. The population grew modestly because births exceeded deaths and offset out-migration. Both rural and urban areas of the Great Plains suffered migration losses during the 1980s. However, the magnitude of the rural losses was much greater. Rural areas experienced a net migration loss of 519,000 people compared to an urban loss of only 42,000.

During the 1990s nonmetropolitan America experienced a rural rebound. Some evidence of this rebound is reflected in the demographic patterns of the Great Plains, which as a whole experienced net in-migration, primarily in the metropolitan areas. Rural areas continued to experience net out-migration, though at a rate considerably below that of the 1980s, and many rural areas close to urban centers gained population because of their appeal as residential and employment centers. Still, Plains rural population grew by only 42,000 between 1990 and 1998. Long years of out-migration of young people from rural areas had left few adults to produce children. Metropolitan areas of the Great Plains, on the other hand, enjoyed both significant net inmigration and substantial natural increase in the 1990s. From 1990 to 1996, for example, net migration gain in the Denver region was 175,000, making it one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States.

Generally similar demographic trends have occurred in the Prairie Provinces. Initial settlement was largely rural but later than on most of the Great Plains. About two-thirds of all homestead entries on the Canadian Prairies from 1870 to 1930 were registered in the fifteen years before World War I. Rural population has diminished since the 1930s, but the declines have not been uniform. Rural areas close to Canadian urban centers and those with scenic or economic advantages were less likely to lose population. Metropolitan areas on the Canadian Great Plains gained population, as did their U.S. counterparts. For example, Calgary, Alberta, known as the "Energy Capital of Canada," has been one of the fastest growing cities in Canada since the 1940s. In 1941 Calgary's census metropolitan area (CMA) population was 93,000; by 1981 this figure had risen to 625,966. In 1996 Calgary's cma population was 821,628, making Calgary the sixth largest cma in Canada. Canada also enjoyed a similar rural turnaround during the 1970s. However, again as in the case of the United States, the impact of the turnaround was considerably less pronounced on the Plains than it was elsewhere in Canada.

In sum, the patterns of population change in the Great Plains over the past 130 years have been complex. From 1870 to 1930 the population of the U.S. Great Plains grew significantly, with most of the growth occurring in areas that remain rural to this day. As late as 1930, 75 percent of the Plains population was rural; thereafter, the rural population generally diminished, while the urban population grew dramatically. In 1998 nearly 61 percent of the 11.1 million people of the U.S. Plains lived in metropolitan areas. Only 4.4 million remained in rural areas, down from a peak of 5 million in 1930. Since 1950 the rural Great Plains of the United States have suffered a net migration loss of 2.1 million people, many of them young adults. This loss of so many potential parents has now drained much of the demographic resilience from the rural Plains. As a result, more than 200 of the 444 rural counties in the Great Plains had more deaths than births between 1990 and 1998. The proportion of Great Plains counties with such natural decrease is greater than in any region of the country at any time in history.

Kenneth M. Johnson Loyola University Chicago

Albrecht, Don E. "The Renewal of Population Loss in the Non-Metropolitan Great Plains." Rural Sociology 58 (1993): 233–46.

Carlyle, William J. "Rural Population Change on the Canadian Prairies." Great Plains Research 4 (1994): 65–87.

Johnson, K. M. "When Deaths Exceed Births: Natural Decrease in the United States." International Regional Science Review 15 (1993): 179–98.

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