The number of people living in rural (nonmetropolitan) counties declined for the fourth year in a row according to population estimates released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

While hundreds of individual counties have lost population over the years, especially in remote or sparsely-settled regions, this marks the first period of population decline for rural (nonmetro) areas as a whole.

Population declines stem from a combination of fewer births, more deaths, and changing migration patterns.

From July 2013 to July 2014, the increase in rural population that came from natural change (58,348 more births than deaths) did not match the decrease in population from net migration (89,251 more people moved out than moved in), leading to overall population loss.

The contribution of natural change to rural population growth will likely continue its gradual downward trend due to historically low fertility rates and an aging population.

Net migration rates are prone to short-term fluctuations in response to economic conditions.

This chart is based on the data found in County-level Datasets: Population on the ERS website, updated April 2015.