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Population age comparison between rural Pocahontas County, Iowa and urban Johnson County, Iowa, illustrating the flight of young adults (red) to urban centers in Iowa.[1]

Rural flight (or rural exodus) is a term used to describe the migratory patterns of peoples from rural areas into urban areas. In modern times, it often occurs in a region following the industrialization of agriculture when fewer people are needed to bring the same amount of agricultural output to market and related agricultural services and industries are consolidated. Rural flight is exacerbated when the population decline leads to the loss of rural services such as stores and schools, which then leads to greater loss of population.


In the United States and Canada

The term is used in the United States and Canada to describe the flight of people from rural areas in the Great Plains and Midwest regions, and to a lesser extent rural areas of the northeast and southeast.


Historical trends

The shift from mixed subsistence farming to commoditized crop and livestock began in the late 19th century. New capital market systems and the railroad network began the trend towards larger farms that employed fewer people per acre. These larger farms used more efficient technologies such as Deere plows, automatic reapers, and higher-yield seed stock, which reduced human input per unit of production.[2] During the Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s, large numbers of people fled rural areas of the Plains and Midwest because of depressed commodity prices, high debt load, and several years of drought and large dust storms.[3] Rural flight from the Great Plains has been depicted in literature, such as John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), in which a family from the Great Plains migrates to California during the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.

Modern rural flight

Interior of a hog confinement barn

Post-World War II rural flight is caused by the growing industrialization of agriculture, in which small, labor-intensive family farms grow into, or are replaced by, heavily mechanized and specialized industrial farms. While a small family farm typically produced a wide range of crop, garden, and animal products, all requiring substantial labor, large industrial farms typically specialize in just a few crop or livestock varieties, using large machinery and high-density livestock containment systems that require a fraction of the labor per unit produced. For example, Iowa State University reports the number of hog farmers in Iowa dropped from 65,000 in 1980 to 10,000 in 2002, but the number of hogs per farm increased from 200 to 1,400.[4] The consolidation of the feed, seed, processed grain, and livestock industries meant that there are fewer small businesses in rural areas, which exacerbated the decreased demand for labor. Rural areas that used to be able to provide employment for all young adults willing to work in challenging conditions, increasingly provide fewer opportunities for young adults. The situation is made worse by the decrease in services such as schools, stores, and cultural opportunities that accompany the decline in population, and the increasing age of the remaining population further stresses the social service system of rural areas.[5]

Abandonment of small towns

The loss of population in rural areas leads to the abandonment of small towns, turning their once thriving downtowns into empty or underutilized storefronts. [5][6] The rise of corporate agricultural structures directly affects small rural communities, resulting in decreased populations, decreased incomes for some segments, increased income inequality, decreased community participation, fewer retailed outlets and less retail trade, and increased environmental pollution.[7]


Middle ages

Rural flight has been occurring to some degree in Germany since the 11th century. A corresponding principle of German law is Stadtluft macht frei ("city air makes you free"), in longer form Stadtluft macht frei nach Jahr und Tag ("city air makes you free after a year and a day"): by custom and, from 1231/32, by statute, a serf who had spent a year and a day in a city was free, and could not be reclaimed by their former master.

German Landflucht

In Germany Landflucht ("flight from the land") refers to the mass migration of peasants into the cities that occurred in Germany (and throughout most of Europe) in the late 19th century.

In 1870 the rural population of Germany constituted 64% of the population; by 1907 it had shrunk to 33%.[8 ] In 1900 alone, the Prussian provinces of East Prussia, West Prussia, Posen, Silesia, and Pomerania lost about 1,600,000 people to the cities,[9] where these former agricultural workers were absorbed into the rapidly growing factory labor class;[10] One of the causes of this mass-migration was the decrease in rural income compared to the rates of pay in the cities.[11]

Landflucht resulted in a major transformation of the German countryside and agriculture. Mechanized agriculture and migrant workers, particularly Poles from the east (Sachsenganger), became more common. This was especially true in the province of Posen that was gained by Prussia when Poland was partitioned.[11] The Polish population of eastern Germany was one of the justifications for the creation of the "Polish corridor" after World War I and the absorption of the land east of the Oder-Neisse line into Poland after World War II. Also, some labor-intensive enterprises were replaced by much less labor-intensive ones such as game preserves.[12]

The word landflucht has negative connotations in German, as it was coined by agricultural employers, often of the German aristocracy, who were lamenting their labor shortages.[10][13 ]

Contemporary developing countries

Today the phenomenon of rural flight is also well-known in developing countries, where many people in the countryside live below the poverty line. They migrate to cities to find employment or to get money by begging.


  1. ^ based on 2000 U.S. Census Data
  2. ^ Cronon, William (1991). Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: Norton.  
  3. ^ Cooper, Michael L. (2004). Dust to eat: drought and depression in the 1930s. New York: Clarion.  
  4. ^ "Living with Hogs in Rural Iowa". Iowa Ag Review. Iowa State University. 2003. Retrieved 25 November 2009.  
  5. ^ a b Carr, Patrick; Maria Kefalas (2009). Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America. Beacon. ISBN 978-080704238-0.  
  6. ^ Bauer, Douglas (2008 (1979)). Prairie City, Iowa: Three Seasons at Home. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.  
  7. ^ Changes in Iowa farm structure, Univeristy of Iowa Extension,
  8. ^ Schapiro, Shotwell 1922, p. 300.
  9. ^ Kirk 1969, p. 139.
  10. ^ a b Mises 2006, p. 8.
  11. ^ a b Shafir 1996, p. 150.
  12. ^ Drage 1909, p. 77.
  13. ^ McLean, Kromkowski 1991, p. 56.
  • Geoffrey Drage. Austria-Hungary (1909 ed.). J. Murray.   - Total pages: 846
  • D. Kirk. Europe's Population in the Interwar Years (1969 ed.). Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0677015607.   - Total pages: 309
  • George F. McLean, John Kromkowski (in ENGLISH). Urbanization and Values: Volume 5 of Cultural Heritage and Contemporary Change (1991 ed.). Council for Research in Values and Philosophy. ISBN 1565180119.   - Total pages: 380
  • Ludwig von Mises. Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow (when ed.). Ludwig von Mises Institute. ISBN 1933550015.   - Total pages: 108
  • Jacob Salwyn Schapiro, James Thomson Shotwell. Modern and Contemporary European History (1815-1922) (1922 ed.). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.   - Total pages: 799
  • Gershon Shafir. Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882–1914 (1996 ed.). University of California Press. ISBN 0520204018.   - Total pages: 287
  • Ravenstein, E. G. (1885): "The Laws of Migration", in London: Journal of the Royal Statistical Society - vol. 48, nº. June, 1885, pp. 167–227.
  • Ravenstein, E. G. (1889): "The Laws of Migration", in London: Journal of the Royal Statistical Society - vol. 52, nº. June, 1889, pp. 241–301.

See also


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