The Size and Shape of ‘Rural America’

It is hard to characterize something as massive as rural America. It is a sprawling landscape of small towns, farmlands, empty space and a wide range of people.

Last week, American Communities Project Director Dante Chinni and the Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler co-wrote a front-page piece for the paper about the divide between rural and urban America that discussed rural America en masse.

The story took a very wide lens to rural America using as its definition, the counties that do not fall into the U.S. Census “metropolitan” category. (The categorization is one of the primary ways the government defines rural America.) And it found rural America that is aging, struggling economically and very conservative politically and socially.

But the ACP is dedicated to analyzing the community differences in the United States in a more nuanced way, so to explore the subtle differences in that rural categorization; the ACP broke it down using the Project’s 15 county types.

That breakdown shows some real variation in vast space known as rural America, but, overall, the broad trends identified in the Journal carry through the data. As with any categorization there are outliers, but the ACP’s breakdown of rural counties finds a large swath of the country, 72% in terms of land mass, with a population that is graying with lower median household incomes and a strong rightward tilt politically and culturally.

As the Journal story noted, there are about 46 million people in the counties that make up rural America. And in the ACP the majority of those 46 million are clumped into five types:

  • Rural Middle America – about 11.5 million people spread out across 417 counties in royal blue on the above map.
  • Evangelical Hubs – about 7.4 million people across 270 counties in purple on the map.
  • Graying America – about 6.5 million people across 307 counties in gray on the above map.
  • African American South – about 6.3 million people across 253 counties in light green on the above map.
  • Working Class Country – about 6.2 million people across 280 counties in dark blue on the above map.

That’s 38 million people out of that 44 million total. And other than the African American South those county types share some common traits. They are overwhelmingly white, more than 85%. They are all under $50,000 for average median household income. And they all voted in double-digits for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

Those county types above (again, other than the African American South) are also all in the top five in the ACP for the percentage of people above the age of 62.

There are different challenges in some of these communities. Working Class Country counties, for instance, have a very low percentage of college graduates, only about 15% have a bachelor’s degree. In Graying America, the workforce is old even by rural standards. About a quarter of the population in those counties, 24%, is age 62 or older.

And to be sure, there are outliers in this broad definition of rural. The counties that comprise the African American South have relatively low median household incomes, like much of rural America, but they are only about 55% white overall. About 250 of those counties fall into this broad definition of rural America. There are about 118 Hispanic Center counties in this definition of rural America.

Those counties show the diversity of what rural places can look like, but the fact that they are exceptions just shows how strong the larger rules for rural America are in 2014. Even with the large minority populations in those counties, many of which are younger than rural America as whole, the larger trends for rural communities holds.

When you look at rural America the way the ACP does, one other point becomes clear: Despite the visions many urbanites may have, rural does not necessarily mean agricultural. There is farming in many of these rural communities, but in most of them agriculture does not dominate. There are not tractors rolling down the streets in most rural communities.

The most directly agricultural type in the ACP, the Aging Farmlands, figures prominently in rural America as defined by the government in acreage, but not in population. Nearly all of the Aging Farmland counties, 160 out of a total of 161, are in the federal government’s rural designation. But they are very sparsely populated, holding only about 574,000 people. That’s only about 1.2% of rural America under this Census definition.

And in many ways those counties, based on agriculture, live in a very different reality than much of rural America. They have been insulted from many of the larger U.S. economic struggles of recent years, like the housing crisis and the large unemployment bump that accompanied the recession.

In other words, the image many urbanites have of rural America misses the reality for most of it.

Rural America is sprawling and diverse in its economics and population, but the larger trends for it as a whole are clear. As a whole it’s aging, struggling economically and strongly conservative. And in the coming years, those three factors look set to play a large role in rural America’s destiny.

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