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Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, Harvest covers agriculture-related topics through a network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.

Opioid, Heroin Overdoses Contributing to Rural Population Decline, USDA Says

This Iowa farm was photographed in August, when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was on a five-state tour to gather input on the 2018 farm bill.

For the first time in its annual survey of rural America, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that mortality rates of working-age adults are on the rise because of opioid and heroin overdoses.

Continuing longtime trends, rural areas are still seeing declining populations, the rebound from the Great Recession is slow and poverty remains a persistent problem, according to the USDA’s “Rural America at a Glance,” released Thursday.

Mortality rates from 2010-2016 increased for all adults in rural areas between the ages of 20 and 54, USDA geographer John Cromartie said. In urban areas, the increase in the death rate was limited to young adults, ages 20 and 29.

“This is an unexpected and in many ways unprecedented turnaround in mortality rates,” Cromartie says. “There are several interrelated factors that have contributed to this trend, including the rise in prescription medication abuse, especially opioids, and the more recent related rise in heroin overdose deaths.”

Heart disease, cancer and other natural causes of death also increased in the 20- to 54-year-old age group, he says. If that age-specific mortality pattern continues, it will not only decrease the overall population, but also increase the amount of those dependent on the social system, as there will be fewer people working, Cromartie says.

The U.S. Census shows six consecutive years of population decline in rural counties, with 14 percent of the U.S. population now living in rural America, distributed across 72 percent of the land area, according to the survey.

Counties in the Great Plains and Corn Belt have seen population losses for decades, Cromartie says, but what’s new is the decreases extending into the Eastern U.S. Only four counties in that region showed population growth, thanks to a decline in those living in the suburbs and the loss of manufacturing jobs.

The only rural areas with population growth are in concentrated in the Western U.S., Cromartie says. The oil and gas boom affected the northern Great Plains and southwestern and west Texas, while scenic amenities and recreation economies attracted new residents in the West, though rates of growth were slower than before the recession, he says.

“Rural America is not a static entity,” Cromartie says. “We are an urbanizing country.”

Peggy Lowe joined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.