Two men shake hands across a table at a job fair.
A job fair in Williston, North Dakota, in 2015. Andrew Cullen/Reuters

The picture of wages and salaries across the U.S. is not a simple one of urban success versus rural decline.

This is the fourth in a series of posts that explore the myths and realities of America’s urban-rural divide. This week we focus on trends in wages and salaries 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.

Wages are a key indicator of the productivity and affluence of cities and regions. There is no doubt that wage and salary levels, as well as their growth, have been widely uneven across American communities, with some winners and many losers. But the pattern does not conform to the simple notion of urban success and rural decline.

Wages and salaries are highest in urban areas. In 2016, counties in large and medium-sized metropolitan areas had median wages and salaries above $40,000. This compared to roughly $37,000 for the nation as a whole. Several large urban counties, like New York, Santa Clara, and San Mateo, had median wages and salaries of more than $100,000. All types of urban counties had wages and salaries that were higher than the national median, while only one type of rural county did—large rural counties adjacent to a metro area.

Median salaries and ratio to the national median, 2016

Type of county Median salary Ratio to national median
Urban county, part of large urban metro $43,633 1.18
Urban county, part of medium urban metro $40,719 1.11
Urban county, part of small urban metro $39,318 1.07
Large rural, county adjacent to a metro $37,964 1.03
Medium rural county, adjacent to a metro $35,613 0.97
Small rural county, adjacent to a metro $33,822 0.92
Large rural county, not adjacent to a metro $38,644 1.05
Medium rural county, not adjacent to a metro $35,556 0.97
Small rural county, not adjacent to a metro $32,971 0.90
All counties $36,837

Interestingly enough, large rural counties—both those that are adjacent to metro areas and those that aren’t—had wages and salaries that were comparable to counties in small metro areas. And some rural counties had median wages and salaries that were quite high. Butte County, Idaho, a small rural county adjacent to a metro, had a median salary of nearly $90,000 ($88,884), or more than twice the national average. This can be traced to high levels of employment in the government sector, particularly in the Idaho National Lab. North Slope Borough County, Alaska, a medium-sized rural county that is not adjacent to a metro area, had a median wage and salary of nearly $100,000 ($99,283), largely because of the oil and natural-gas development there.

There is considerable variation in wages and salaries across all types of places. While the most affluent large urban counties had wages and salaries of around $100,000, the poorest of them had wages of $20,000 or $25,000, a difference of four or five times.

Wage growth is another story entirely. Rural communities have seen significantly faster growth in wages and salaries than their urban counterparts. The map below, charting wage and salary growth across American counties for the period 2001 to 2016, illustrates this unevenness. The size of the dots indicates the change in wages and salaries. Purple dots designate the most urban counties, while the lightest blue dots are the most rural ones.

County wage and salary growth, 2001–2016

map of wage growth along urban-rural continuum

Between 2001 and 2016, wages grew by roughly 50 percent across all counties. Most types of rural counties saw wage growth above the national average, while all types of urban counties had below-average gains. In fact, the smallest and most isolated rural places—small rural counties that are not adjacent to a major metro area—posted the highest wage growth of all, nearly 60 percent.

The performance of rural counties becomes even clearer when we look at the top 10 percent of U.S. counties on wage growth. Nearly 275 rural counties are in this top 10 percent (including more that 100 small rural counties that are not adjacent to metro areas), compared to just 41 urban counties.

Likewise, more than a quarter of all small rural counties not adjacent to a metro area rank in the top 10 percent of all counties on wage growth. So do 18 percent of small rural counties that are adjacent to a metro, and 11 percent of medium-size rural counties that are not adjacent to a metro. This compares to just 4 percent of urban counties in large metros, 2 percent of urban counties in medium-sized metros, and 5 percent of counties in small metros.

The same basic pattern comes through when we look at the share of counties that are in the bottom 10 percent on wage gains.

Urban counties in large metros had the largest share (13 percent) in the bottom 10 percent, followed by urban counties in small metros. Large rural counties that are not adjacent to a metro area had the smallest share of wage loss (under 4 percent).

Wages and wage growth across America are uneven. While wages and salaries are higher in urban places, generally speaking, wage growth has been larger in rural America.  The narrative of successful urban places and declining rural ones belies a larger reality of winners and losers across all types of places.

CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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