The Fall and (Partial) Rise of the Rural Creative Class

The rural creative class has recovered from the recession like its urban counterparts—but it’s how and where that matters.

Image U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr
A new USDA report suggests that towns like Middleburg, Virginia, population 632, might be threatened by the new knowledge economy. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr)

Cities and metros power economic growth, and talented and skilled people flow to them.

But what about this country’s nonmetro areas, or its rural regions? How have they fended since the Great Recession? And what has been the role of the rural creative class in their economic recovery?

Department of Agriculture economist Timothy Wojan, who along with David McGranahan wrote one of the pioneering studies of the rural creative class, just released a new study examining how rural areas with larger shares of the creative class performed between 2007 and 2011. Wojan’s previous work found a substantial share of the creative class in some rural counties, and also that natural amenities (mountains, lakes and agreeable climates, for example) can help spur rural growth. In this updated study, he looks at the role of the rural creative class and natural amenities in rural counties' performances in the wake of the Great Recession.

Wojan examines the creative class at the county level, across America’s 3,144 counties, and identifies creative class counties as the top 25 percent with the highest shares of creative class employment. Using this definition, Wojan identifies 217 nonmetro (10.6 percent of rural counties) and 568 metro counties as creative class counties. The rural creative class share, composed of less than 4 million workers, is about 11 percent of the nation’s total creative class workforce and 3 percent of the entire civilian workforce.

The map below, from his study, charts the metro and nonmetro counties with the highest shares of the creative class. Metro creative class counties are in grey, rural or nonmetro creative class counties with natural amenities are in purple, and nonmetro creative class counties without natural amenities are in blue.

Wojan then uses both USDA and Department of Labor data to chart the economic performance of creative class counties over the course of the recession and recovery, from 2007 to 2011, using job growth as a metric. Not surprisingly, he finds that creative class counties were more likely to have experienced job growth during the years immediately following the economic recovery. This held true for rural or nonmetro counties, as well as for metro counties. However, the nonmetro creative class county recovery has looked a bit different. Wojan finds that 30 percent of nonmetro creative class counties have not seen employment growth in the recovery, compared to just 15 percent of metro creative class counties. The graph below shows his results.

Wojan also looks at the effect of amenities on rural growth. While the presence of natural amenities greatly contributed to the growth of creative-class nonmetro counties prior to the recession, the association is no longer as strong in its wake. As Wojan writes:

The comparison with creative class counties that are not amenity counties is particularly striking. The recession and recovery patterns of creative class counties that are not amenity counties are much closer to the metro creative class county patterns, possibly because many of these counties are part of metro commuting sheds. For the amenity creative class counties, the added human capital endowment provided by workers engaged in skilled, creative activities does not appear to have hastened job growth in recovery.

Here’s his graph, which show recession and recovery outcomes for nonmetro counties:

Two kinds of rural counties are experiencing growth, according to Wojan’s analysis. The first are nonmetro creative class counties close to major metros.  The second are rural creative class counties that are home to colleges and universities, which are themselves knowledge economy hubs. This proximity effect is likely to become more important, as larger metros and knowledge economy hubs play an increasingly important role in driving economic growth across the nation. What may be happening: The Internet is enabling creative-class workers to stretch the boundaries of their commuting sheds and locate on the rural periphery of major metros, far enough to work from countrified and comfortable home offices, but close enough to come in for meetings.

The upshot: Just as with the nation as a whole, rural geography is becoming more concentrated and spiky. The rural economy has the same fundamental drivers as the metro economy: access to knowledge institutions and the clustering and concentration of talent and skill. No longer can rural areas expect to prosper based just on natural amenities like ski mountains and national parks. The harsh reality of our time is that proximity to major metro economic centers is more important than ever before. Unfortunately for more isolated places, that tilt toward spikiness is only likely to increase in the future.

Thanks to my friend Bill Bishop’s Daily Yonder blog, which brought Wojan’s USDA study to my attention.

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