Indiana State University Newsroom

Rural Indiana seeing anemic growth

December 2, 2011

Myth: Rural Indiana is declining in population.

"It's not true," Indiana State University Professor Steven Pontius said. "Given what has happened economically, growth is anemic."

Pontius, ISU geography professor, and Purdue University Professor Emeritus Stan Cordes exploded that myth about rural areas while giving the "Indiana Rural Status Update" during the Indiana Rural Summit held at Indiana State University.

Cordes spoke about the demographic changes in Indiana from 1960 to 2010, in which the rural population seemingly fell from just more than 2 million people to just more than 1.4 million people while at the same time metropolitan areas grew from about 2.6 million to more than 5 million.

"The typical interpretation is people are leaving rural Indiana," Cordes said.

However, he said, 25 counties grew so rapidly that they were reclassified as metropolitan counties.

"It's not that people are leaving rural Indiana," he said. "The counties are leaving, getting flipped and reclassified."

Pontius took a narrower look at Indiana, concentrating on the decade between 2000 and 2010. While he found growth, he also found causes for concern.

While some rural counties lost population between 2000 and 2010, overall micropolitan areas grew by .8 percent and noncore areas grew by .7 percent. The city of Marion in Grant County is considered a micropolitan area since its population falls between 10,000 and 4,999 residents. Martin County is considered a noncore with its urban population of less than 10,000. Terre Haute is considered a metropolitan area while its surrounding counties of Vermillion, Parke, Clay and Sullivan are considered part of its metropolitan statistical area and are not statistically counted as rural.

"What's going on in rural counties is going on in the counties of metropolitan statistical areas," Pontius said.

Between 2000 and 2010, 18 rural Indiana counties lost population, which amounted to a loss of 28,000 individuals. Most of those losses were from the urban centers of those counties such as Connersville, which lost 12.5 percent; Peru, 12.1 percent, Wabash, 9.2 percent, Richmond, 5.9 percent and Marion, 4.4 percent. However, Angola, Warsaw, Greensburg, Jasper and Scottsburg grew by more than 10 percent during the past decade.

Unemployment, poverty, an aging population, decreasing per capita income and lacking education all are affecting rural areas, Pontius said.

Pontius attributed much of the loss to the moribund economy. In 2007, most rural counties had unemployment rates between 3 and 6 percent. By 2010, unemployment had increased to between 9.1 and 15 percent. Poverty rates increased to mirror unemployment rates, according to Pontius. Poverty rates in the rural areas fell between 5 and 10 percent in 2000. In 2009, those rates rose to between 10 and 20 percent. At the same time, in the rural area the per capita income fell from $5,000 less than metropolitan areas to $8,000 less. Additionally, rural counties are aging at a faster rate. The combination of age, job loss and lower income helped to lead the flight from the rural areas.

Additionally, age and education also are affecting rural areas, according to Pontius. In 2000, 12 rural counties had at least 15 percent of their populations age 65 or older. Ten years later, 26 rural counties had populations 65 or older. Also, he said, rural high school graduation rates, SAT scores and college graduate rates trail rates in urban areas.

Pontius said there are several strategies that must occur to help rural Indiana to recover, including strengthening ties between rural and urban areas, providing adequate health care and preserving the natural resources. However, labor market connections, such as broadband Internet access, must improve. Also educational opportunities must be upgraded through increased high school graduation rates as well as the numbers of those who go to college.

"Those are the entrepreneurs of the future," he said.

At that is ultimately where he sees that growth can occur, through Hoosiers starting their own small businesses and hiring others.

Indiana ranks 50th out of 50 states in entrepreneurship, Pontius said. The key to rural growth is more people starting their own businesses.

"We want them to come from rural Indiana," he said. "We want them to return to rural Indiana because there are opportunities there and some of them may be the ones creating those opportunities."

All of this can happen, Pontius said, though collaborative efforts between various groups in the state.

"Rural Indiana faces a number of challenges," he said, "challenges that all Hoosiers need to address because if rural Indiana does not prosper, Indiana will not prosper. Metropolitan Indiana and nonmetropolitan Indiana need each other."

Contact: Steven Pontius, Indiana State University, professor of geography, at 812-237-2444 or

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or