A cow stands in front of a barn painted with a U.S. flag
A barn painted with a U.S. flag in Homestead, Iowa Jim Young/Reuters

Not all rural areas are declining: Some are thriving, while others are undergoing significant transitions.

The notion of a deep divide between thriving, affluent, and progressive urban areas and declining, impoverished, and conservative rural areas has become a central trope—if not the central trope—in American culture, especially since Donald Trump was elected. But not all of rural America is in decline. In fact, significant parts of it are thriving, while others have economies in transition. Understanding these distinctions is crucial to understanding the places that truly are in decline.

That’s the big takeaway from a new study by Jessica Ulrich-Schad (South Dakota State University) and Cynthia Duncan (Carsey School of Public Policy), published in the Journal of Peasant Studies. The authors draw on a rich set of data collected through surveys, interviews, and focus groups, as well as the more typically used datasets from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. All in all, between 2007 and 2011, they surveyed roughly 17,000 residents of rural communities in 38 counties and 12 states to gauge rural Americans’ perceptions of their communities, their local economies, and environmental issues and the future. They also drew on detailed in-person interviews with approximately 180 people.

Socioeconomic and demographic indicators for study counties, 2015, percentage of residents

Amenity-rich Transitioning Chronically poor
Population change, 1990-2015 19.3 10.6 -13.7
Population change, ages 25-34, 1990-2015 1.2 -18.3 -30.6
Adults 16-64 working (full-time, year-round) 41.1 42.6 36.0
Families with no workers (past 12 months) 20.0 20.6 27.8
Working-age (16-64) men disability status 16.6 15.7 22.5
No high-school degree (25+) 8.9 9.4 21.5
Associate degree and above (25+) 33.0 31.1 23.0
Median household income (in dollars) 45,876 51,505 30,021
Single female family households 8.4 9.7 17.3
Children (0-17) in poverty 22.2 21.0 38.4
Non-Hispanic white 83.4 83.5 62

(U.S. Census Bureau, 1990, 2015. Journal of Peasant Studies.)

Ultimately, the authors identify three very different types of rural community across the United States: chronically poor, transitioning, and amenity-rich.

Chronically poor rural areas

These are the rural areas we hear most about. From Michael Harrington’s influential 1962 book The Other America to J.D. Vance’s controversial Hillbilly Elegy, our common impression of rural America is that it is made up of economically depressed places that were hit hard by deindustrialization. Clustered in Appalachia and the rural South, these areas struggle with population and job loss, unemployment, low levels of educational attainment, high levels of poverty, and inter-generational economic hardship.  

Taken as a whole, this group of places lost nearly 14 percent of its population between 1990 and 2015, which is far worse than the 27-percent population gain of the nation as a whole. They lost young people at more than double that rate, their population of 25-to-34 year-olds plummeting by more than 30 percent between 1990 and 2015.

Their median income is far below that of the nation as a whole, $30,000 versus $54,000. Nearly a quarter of working-age men in these areas have a disability, more than twice the national share of 11 percent. Almost four in every 10 children in these places live in poverty, again, almost double the rate of the nation as a whole (20 percent). One in five adults does not have a high-school diploma.

These persistently poor rural counties suffer from chronic joblessness as well. Just 36 percent of working-age adults maintain a full-time, year-round job, and no one works at all in 28 percent of households. They have higher proportions of single-female-headed households than elsewhere, as well as a greater reliance on disability and other government benefits. Drug addiction and abuse are more pervasive. Overall, the situation of these places is comparable to distressed and persistently poor inner-city neighborhoods.

Politically, these are the places that most closely conform to what we think of as Trump-voting rural areas. Sixty percent of the people living in chronically poor counties voted Republican in 2008, and 70 percent did so in 2016 (in rural communities overall, the numbers are 53 and 62 percent). Importantly, though, in the Mississippi Delta and in the Black Belt, where there are more black residents, voters tended to be more evenly split between Republican and Democratic candidates in recent elections.

Transitioning rural areas

The second type of rural community encompasses places in the midst of demographic and economic transitions. These communities stretch across parts of the Northwest, the Northeast, the Alaskan Panhandle, the Midwest, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Deindustrialization has hurt these once robust, blue-collar, middle-class places, which were centered on agriculture, resource-based industries, and manufacturing. But, in contrast to the population loss of their chronically poor counterparts, transitioning rural counties have seen population growth—11 percent between 1990 and 2015. However, they have continued to lose younger people; the population between the ages of 25 and 34 shrank by 18 percent over this same period. The median income in these communities is more than $51,000, just slightly lower than the national median. About a fifth of children live in poverty, also roughly the same as the country broadly.

In these transitioning areas, voters flipped from Obama Democrats to Trump Republicans between 2008 and 2016, with the share of Republican voters increasing from 43 percent in 2008 to 51 percent in 2016.

Findings from the Community and Environment in Rural America (CERA) survey by county type, percentage of respondents

(Political) Amenity- rich Transitioning Chronically poor Significant
Belong to Democratic political party 39.7 35.8 47.3 *
Believe global warming/climate change has affected their commuity 53.0 51.6 50.2 *
Believe conservation or environmental rules good for community 46.4 40.6 29.9 *
Think their local government is effective 47.7 44.9 52.9 *

(*Indicates a significant difference by county type [p<0.5] but not which types the significant difference is between. Journal of Peasant Studies.)

Amenity-rich rural areas

The third kind of rural community is amenity-rich. These places are bestowed with natural amenities like mountains, lakes, and coastlines. As other research has confirmed, such natural advantages have allowed some rural communities to attract more affluent and educated residents and build more stable economies.

Amenity-rich rural counties watched their population grow by nearly 20 percent between 1990 and 2015. And they actually gained adults between the ages of 25 and 34 over that period.

These places’ median income is close to $46,000, which is lower than the national average and also that of transitioning places. Their share of child poverty is roughly on par with the country as a whole. But their share of single-female-headed households is much lower.

Previous research has shown that these are places like Woodstock and Hudson, New York, and Silverton, Colorado. Often, they are just on the outskirts of major urban areas. A growing number of amenity-rich rural places struggle with similar kinds of economic divides and housing unaffordability as those that define the new urban crisis.

When it comes to politics, voters in amenity-rich areas shifted from Democrat to Republican in the last election cycle. In 2008, 53 percent of people in amenity-rich places voted for Obama and 44 percent for McCain. In 2016, however, these numbers changed to 43 percent for Clinton and 50 percent for Trump.

***

Just as some cities and large metros are growing like gangbusters while others are declining, and some suburban areas are booming while others are beset by economic dislocation and poverty, so it is with rural America. Not all rural places fit the mold of decline. A subset of them is performing reasonably well, and many other places are transitioning from the old to the new economy.  

Our overly simplified mental models of America’s economic geography—especially of its rural areas—mask a more complex reality. It is critical to understand if we want to successfully bridge the economic, cultural, and political divides that continue to plague our nation.

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