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Human Population Dynamics

Trends in Rural Population

Data about population size and distribution illustrate where and how many people inhabit an area.

How are Population Size and Distribution Defined?

Population size refers to the number of people who live within the boundaries of a particular geographic area, like a town, county, state, region of states, or nation. In the U.S., we rely on the data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau every ten years in a census, to give us the highest quality estimate of the number of people living in these geographic areas. Every year between the decennial censuses, state data centers sponsored by the U.S. Census Bureau, calculate estimates of the population using a variety of statistical techniques based on previous census data along with data about births and deaths.

Multnomah County

Downtown Portland, Multnomah County:
Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

Population distribution refers to how a group of people is spread across a geographic area. There are many ways to examine the geographic dispersion of a population, and in the Rural Communities Explorer, we are primarily interested in the dispersion of the population across rural areas.

Trends in Rural Population

The U.S. has experienced declines in the proportion of people who live in rural areas since 1790 (the first time the decennial census was taken), though it is important to note that the classification of areas as rural also changed over that time. An examination of statistics published by the U.S. Census Bureau, which used a consistent definition of rural and urban, reveals that between 1950 and 2000 the nation experienced a decline in the percentage of the population living in rural areas from 36% to 21%. With respect to changes in the absolute size of the population living in rural areas between 1950 and 2000, however, the U.S. actually experienced moderate growth. The growth in this period was greatest in the 1970s, a phenomenon referred to by demographers as the "nonmetropolitan turnaround" (Johnson, 1999).

Oregon has not escaped these trends in rural population. Overall, the percentage of the total population living in rural areas has declined from about 70% to 20% between 1900 and 2000, but the total number of people living in rural areas has grown slightly since 1900 (Hough, 2005). Despite an aging population and declines in fertility rural areas in Oregon and across the nation have avoided decline. These declines have been avoided due to the in-migration of various populations including ethnic minority farm laborers and their families, individuals who can telecommute to their jobs, and retired individuals who move away from urban areas or states with fewer natural resource amenities (Johnson and Cromartie, 2006).

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Links to additional sources of information about population

Annual Population Estimates for Oregon, counties, cities, and incorporated towns from Portland State University (PSU) Population Research Center (PRC):

Annual Population Estimates by state, county, cities, incorporated towns, and metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) from U.S. Census Bureau:

Decennial census and American Community Survey (ACS) data from U.S. Census Bureau:

U.S. Population Projections, by state from U.S. Census Bureau:

Population-Related Terms

To explore the size and distribution of population in an area the following statistics are available:

  • Total Population: The total number of individuals enumerated by the US Census Bureau or estimated by the State Data Center at Portland State University's Population Research Center during inter-censal years.
    Source: US Census Bureau, Population Research Center at Portland State University

  • Rural Population: The percentage of the population who live in areas designated as rural by the U.S. Census Bureau. Rural is considered to be all territory, population and housing units not in urbanized areas and not in places of more than 2,500 persons outside of urbanized areas.
    Formula: ([rural population]/[total population])*100
    Source: U.S. Census Bureau


Hough, George. 2005. Demographic Changes in Rural Oregon 1990 to 2000 and Dynamics of Future Change. Presentation to 22nd Annual Oregon Rural Health Conference, Sunriver, Oregon: November 4, 2005.

Johnson, Kenneth. 1999. The Rural Rebound. Reports on America, 1(3). Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau.

Johnson, Kenneth and John B. Cromartie. 2006. The Rural Rebound and its Aftermath: Changing Demographic Dynamics and Regional Contrasts. In W.A. Kandel and D.L. Brown (eds.), Population Change and Rural Society (25-49). Netherlands: Springer.

Authored by Lena Etuk, Social Demographer, Oregon State University Extension Service (2008)