Big Country?

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Since the Industrial Revolution, people have been concentrating in urban areas. But that may be changing. From 1990 to 1995, population in rural U.S. counties increased by an estimated 5.1 percent, according to a new study by demographers Kenneth Johnson of Loyola University and Calvin Beale of the U.S. Agriculture Department. During the entire 1980s, rural population grew by 1.3 million, but in the first half of this decade it jumped by 2.6 million. Metropolitan population rose faster, at 5.8 percent, due to immigration, higher birth rates, and lower death rates. But internal migration resulted in a net shift of 1.3 million people moving from urban to nonurban parts of the country.

Why this is happening now is unclear. But jobs are easier to come by outside the city. Unemployment in rural areas was atypically lower than urban unemployment during the economic slowdown of the early '90s. And technological changes are allowing more people to work at home and more businesses to move outside city centers.

People don't appear to be moving to the true country, however. Nearly one-quarter of the nation's 2,304 rural counties, primarily those dependent on farming or mining, had declining populations. The bulk of "rural" population growth occurred in counties near metropolitan areas, beyond the established suburban sprawl, but which may be classified as metro in the near future.

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