A large tank truck parked in front of new apartment buildings.
An oil truck sits in a dirt lot near a new housing development in Watford City in rural McKenzie County, North Dakota. McKenzie was the nation's fastest-growing county between 2010 and 2016 due to the Bakken oil boom. Martha Irvine/AP

Economic growth is not only uneven between urban and rural places—it is uneven within them, too.

Note: This is the first in a series of posts that will explore the myths and realities of America’s urban-rural divide. Here, we provide an overview of the series and of the data and methodology used. Future posts will cover population growth, jobs, wages, college graduates, and knowledge workers across America’s urban and rural communities.

The notion of a deep and enduring divide between thriving, affluent, progressive urban areas and declining, impoverished, conservative rural areas has become a central trope—if not the central trope—in American culture today. In May 2017, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “Rural America Is the New Inner City.” And ever since Donald Trump was elected president, the narrative of urban revitalization and rural decline has only gained steam.

But the reality is that this narrative fails to capture the full complexity of economic life in America. In fact, parts of rural America are thriving, even as other parts decline; just as parts of urban America continue to lose population and face economic decline as other parts make a comeback.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll take a deep dive into the economic realities of urban and rural life in America today, debunking many of the myths about each of them. I’ll cover five key areas: population growth, jobs, wages, college grads, and the knowledge-based creative class. I’ll track performance on these five key metrics across urban and rural America for the decade and a half from 2001 to 2016, which covers the Great Recession and subsequent recovery.

To do so, I’m using the rural-urban continuum developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sorts America’s more than 3,000 counties into nine different types of places, from highly urbanized counties in large metropolitan areas to small, isolated rural counties.

The map above shows how counties range on this continuum. (Darker colors indicate more urban counties.) Yes, America is highly urbanized along its two coasts, but urban and rural areas are interspersed across much of the nation, and even on the coasts.

There are three types of urban counties: those that are part of large metros of more than 1 million people, such as Los Angeles County, Miami-Dade County, and New York County (Manhattan); those that are part of medium-size metros of between 250,000 and 1 million people, like Fairfield County, Connecticut, and Saratoga County, New York; and those that are in small metros, with populations of fewer than 250,000 people—for example, Barnstable County, Massachusetts (which is essentially Cape Cod) or Jackson County, Oregon, where Medford is located.  

Then there are two broad types of rural counties, each with three categories. The first type is more connected rural counties, located adjacent to major metro areas. The second is more isolated rural counties, located apart from metro areas. Within each of these types, rural counties are classified as large (more than 20,000 people, such as Litchfield, Connecticut), medium-size (2,500 to 19,999, for example, Hillsdale County, Michigan), and small (fewer than 2,500 people, like Elk County, Kansas).

Urban counties account for the lion’s share of America’s population. 272 million people lived in urban counties in 2016, almost 85 percent of the nation’s population, and five times more than the 51 million or so who live in rural counties. That said, urban counties make up slightly more than a third of America’s counties, whereas almost two-thirds of counties are rural.

Urban counties are not only home to more people, but they have also experienced more population growth, as the chart below shows. Between 2010 and 2016, all types of urban counties saw their populations rise, whereas most types of rural counties saw theirs decline.

But that doesn’t mean all rural counties have lost population. Although the counties in the top 10 percent for population growth are mostly urban, 89 rural counties also ranked in this 10-percent segment.

Nearly 45 percent of rural counties (909 of 2,052) grew at a rate that exceeded the median national rate of growth. More than 150 rural counties (8 percent of all rural counties) had population growth of 5 percent or better, and 44 rural counties had growth in excess of 10 percent, representing a quarter of all the counties across the country that had population growth of 10 percent or higher.

Indeed, seven of the 10 counties that saw the largest increases in population were rural. Four of them are in North Dakota: McKenzie (97.3 percent), Williams (52.0 percent), Mountrail (32.7 percent), and Stark counties (28.1 percent). Then there’s Loving, Texas (36.1 percent), Sumter, Florida (31.5 percent), and Wasatch, Utah (29.2 percent).  

Population, however, is only one metric by which to judge economic success. And it is a relatively poor one at that. Adding people does not necessarily equate to adding jobs, and it certainly does not by itself add up to higher wages or better jobs. As we will see, rural counties fare much better on the other four metrics we studied: job creation, wage gains, college grads, and knowledge, professional, and creative workers.

The key takeaway from this series is basic: Not all of rural America is in decline. Far from it. Significant parts of it are thriving, while others have economies that are in transition. The same is true of urban and metro areas of all sizes. Some are succeeding, others are failing, and still others are standing still.

The reality is that economic growth is not only uneven and unequal between urban and rural places; it is also uneven within them. Some cities and large metros are growing like gangbusters, while others are declining; some suburban areas are booming, while others are beset by economic dislocation and poverty. So it is with rural places.

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