A large factory in the desert
The Tesla Gigafactory in Storey County, Nevada. Bob Strong/Reuters

Economic growth is a mixed bag in urban and rural counties, large and small.

This is the second of a series of posts that explore the myths and realities of America’s urban-rural divide. This week, we focus on the distribution of jobs across urban and rural places. For an overview of the series and the data and methodology we use, see the first post in this series.

Jobs are a key dimension of economic growth and social cohesion. There’s no question that urban areas have had faster rates of job growth than their rural counterparts over the past decade and a half. But certain rural places have actually seen rates of job growth similar to counties in medium-size and smaller metros. A close look at the data shows that there are winners and losers across each and every type of rural and urban locale in America.

Urban America has clearly captured the lion’s share of job growth, accounting for a whopping 97 percent of total job growth between 2001 and 2016, with urban counties in large metros making up more than two-thirds of the gain. In contrast, rural counties accounted for less than 3 percent of job growth across this period. This indicates the outsized role of urban counties in driving the American economy.

Not just that: The rate of job growth in urban counties far exceeds that of rural counties. Across the nation, the median job growth rate for all counties over the past decade and a half was 2.1 percent. Large urban counties saw a 12 percent rate of job growth, and both small and medium-size urban counties saw a 6 percent rate of growth. Most types of rural counties experienced negative job growth, with only large rural counties posting a positive rate: The rate of job growth in large rural counties outside of metro areas was slightly better than 4 percent, not too far off the rate of job growth for small and medium-size urban counties.

Across the nation, more than half of all counties saw job growth between 2001 and 2016. In urban counties, the share of counties with job growth was considerably higher: nearly 80 percent of those in large metros experienced job growth; nearly 70 percent in medium-size metros, and roughly 63 percent in small metros saw job growth. Large rural counties that are not adjacent to a metro are comparable to medium and small urban ones, with nearly 65 percent seeing growth over this period.

But, looking at average or median rates can be deceiving. It can mask the distribution of places that are experiencing job growth or decline. The chart below shows the share of each type of county that ranks in the top ten percent for job growth.

Again, urban counties in large metros account for the largest share of counties in the top ten percent of job growth. But, interestingly enough, small rural counties that are not adjacent to metros have the second largest share. Indeed, every type of rural place has some share of job winners.

One Nevada county is a prime example of how the economic boom is not exclusive to large urban counties. Storey County, about an hour outside of Reno, tops the list of all counties in terms of overall job change from 2001 to 2016. The medium-size urban metro saw a job growth of nearly 590 percent, potentially due to Tesla opening its massive lithium-ion Gigafactory in mid-2016. The following top nine counties are mostly in the Midwest or South, in places like the Dakotas, Iowa, and Louisiana. Love County, Oklahoma, is number six with 211 percent growth, perhaps attributable to the 2013 expansion of the Winstar World Casino, the county’s largest private employer. Sumter County, Florida, ranks number 7 with 210 percent growth, possibly due to one of Florida’s largest retirement communities, The Villages, expanding in 2017.

Job loss reflects the same basic pattern as job growth. Across the nation, 44 percent of counties experienced job loss between 2001 and 2016. But just 22 percent of large urban counties did—half the national rate. Most types of rural counties exceeded the national rate, with job loss occurring in 50 percent or more of these counties. Here again, large rural counties that are not adjacent to a major metro posted a much better rate—comparable to that of small and medium-size urban areas.

The pattern is similar when it comes to job loss. Fewer urban counties have experienced job loss compared to medium or small rural counties. But large rural counties, nearby a metro or not, have surprisingly low shares of the top ten percent, comparable to or less than urban counties, which have shares ranging from 3.5 to 7.6 percent.

The basic pattern is clear: In the aggregate, larger urban places outperform smaller rural ones when it comes to job growth. But, there are winners and losers among all types of places across urban and rural America. The reality is more complex than the simple narrative of urban success and rural decline. Our winner-take-all geography operates at every scale, and across every type of place.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed editorial assistance to this article.

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