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The 1990 census is expected to confirm something demographers have been detecting for several years: The "rural renaissance" is over.

The rural migration to urban America is back on course, resuming a historical pattern that was merely interrupted in the 1970s.While experts differ on the size of the migration, they agree that it means trouble for many of the 60 million people - nearly a quarter of the nation's total population - who live outside the 284 officially designated metropolitan areas.

Calvin L. Beale, a senior demographer with the Department of Agriculture, believes fewer people left the countryside in the past decade than in the 1950s or '60s, but that the later departures may have been the worst blow of all in many struggling communities. "It's a critical mass they are losing," he says. "The sense of community is impaired."

Beale was among the first to identify a back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s, the touted rural renaissance that vanished with the decade. In recent years, only retirees have continued to move to rural areas in sizable numbers. Demographers and sociologists have identified 500 "retirement counties," many of them just beyond the outward spread of suburbia, that enjoyed steady and sometimes fast growth in the past decade.

For younger people, it has been a different story. Their brief return to the countryside in the 1970s, partly an outgrowth of the counterculture and environmental movements, gave way in the '80s to the old lure of city jobs and bright lights. That lure was enhanced by economic ills in the timber, oil and mining industries, and the worst financial crisis in the heartland of American farming since the Depression.

With massive infusions of federal subsidies, the farm crisis passed, but not before droves of additional farm families deserted the land, continuing a trend toward fewer but bigger and more productive farms. Today, fewer than 5 million people live on farms and less than one-fifth of Americans living in rural areas depend on farming, either directly or indirectly, for a living.

The economic recovery came too late to the rural regions and spread unevenly, generally aiding big-farm operators more than others. Many lumber communities in the Pacific Northwest and old textile towns in the South stagnated, while energy boom towns in the Rocky Mountains and Southwest went bust.

Disturbing as it is to those involved, the dislocations are nothing new. The American landscape is filled with the ruins of towns and villages that no longer exist.

Each decennial census shows that about 200 incorporated towns have vanished - not changed their names or been annexed, but simply withered away. "There is no (federal government) strategy to keep people in place" - either in rural towns or on the farms - says Walter Hill, assistant under-secretary of agriculture for small-community and rural development.