The campus of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a rural magnet for creative-class workers.
Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is a rural magnet for creative-class workers. Jae C. Hong/AP

Although the creative class in the United States is largely urban, many rural counties also have high shares of knowledge, professional, and artistic workers.

This is the sixth post in a series of posts that explore the myths and realities of America’s urban-rural divide. This week we focus on the distribution of knowledge, professional, and artistic workers—the jobs that comprise the creative class 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.

Across the nation, the creative class is overwhelmingly concentrated in urban areas. As the map below shows, the location of this class is highly uneven. (The creative class is composed of knowledge workers and professionals in fields such as science and technology; business and management; healthcare, law, and education; and arts, culture, design, media, and entertainment.)

(In the map above, gray indicates a county that CityLab doesn’t have data for.)

Almost 90 percent of the class’s members, or 24 million workers, live in urban counties, with more than 60 percent of them in urban counties in large metropolitan areas with over 1 million people. Just a bit more than one in 10 members of the creative class live in rural communities. But these broad trends mask more nuanced patterns in the distribution of the creative class across urban and rural communities.

Creative Class Share of the Workforce, 2010–2016

Type of county 2010 share 2016 share Change
Urban county
Part of large urban metro 34.2% 35.9% 1.7%
Part of medium urban metro 31.7% 32.9% 1.4%
Part of small urban metro 29.6% 31.1% 1.4%
Rural county: adjacent to a metro
Large rural county 27.8% 29.1% 1.5%
Medium rural county 26.5% 27.7% 1.1%
Small rural county 28% 29% 0.9%
Rural county: not adjacent to a metro
Large rural county 29.1% 30.2% 1.8%
Medium rural county 28.4% 29.4% 0.7%
Small rural county 31.4% 32.3% 0.6%
All counties 29.1% 30.2% 1.3%

The most striking thing to jump out from the data is that there is not as much variation in the share of the creative class across urban and rural places as you might think. The creative class makes up roughly 30 percent of the workforce across all counties. It makes up a higher percentage of the workforce—36 percent or so—in large urban counties. But aside from that, creative-class workers are a similar share of the workforce in most other types of urban and rural places across America.

Indeed, the creative class makes up almost the same share of the workforce in small rural counties that are not adjacent to metro areas as it does in urban counties in medium-sized metros. This may reflect the fact that certain professions like doctors and teachers are over-represented in small, isolated rural counties.

There is more variation in the location of the creative class within the different types of rural and urban places than between them. So, while the creative class comprises more than half of the workforce in the leading urban counties, it forms 20 percent or less of the workforce in the lowest-performing urban counties. By way of comparison, the creative class makes up as much as 55 percent of the workforce in the leading small rural counties, and just 15 or 20 percent in the lowest-performing rural counties.

Breakdown of Counties in the Top 10 Percent on Creative Class Share of Workforce, 2016

Type of county Number of counties in top 10 percent Share of top 10 percent Share of county type
Urban county
Part of large urban metro 138 43.9% 33.3%
Part of medium urban metro 48 15.3% 14.8%
Part of small urban metro 30 9.6% 8.6%
Rural county: adjacent to a metro
Large rural county 7 2.2% 3.2%
Medium rural county 8 2.5% 1.3%
Small rural county 11 3.5% 4.7%
Rural county: not adjacent to a metro
Large rural county 5 1.6% 4.8%
Medium rural county 11 3.5% 2.4%
Small rural county 56 17.8% 12.9%

The table above shows the urban and rural counties that rank in the top 10 percent of all counties on how much of their workforce belongs to the creative class. It’s true that urban counties in large metro areas account for the largest number of counties in the top 10 percent. But next in line are the smallest and most remote rural places, not adjacent to a metro area, with a larger share of the creative class even than urban counties in medium-sized metro areas. Indeed, there are nearly 100 rural counties across America that rank in the top 10 percent of counties for having a high share of the creative class.

These include places such as Los Alamos County, New Mexico, home to Los Alamos National Laboratory (64.6 percent creative-class workforce), Sioux County, Nebraska (55.6 percent), Slope County, North Dakota (54.5 percent), Carter County, Missouri (53.3 percent), the City of Lexington, Virginia (52.2 percent), Judith Basin County, Missouri (45.8 percent), the City of Juneau, Alaska (45 percent), and Lewis and Clark County, Montana (44.8 percent). The fields of healthcare and education generally have many creative-class workers. In some smaller counties, there is a relatively large proportion of people employed in healthcare and education, resulting in higher shares of creative-class workers. Every place category, urban or rural, has some share of its counties that rank among the top 10 percent of all counties on the creative class.

Approximately 45 percent of rural counties (954 of 2,053) experienced growth in their creative class at a rate exceeding the national average of 1.3 percent. Twelve percent of these counties (230) saw growth in their creative class of more than 5 percent. Of 44 counties that saw creative-class growth of more than 10 percent, 41 were rural.

Breakdown of Counties in the Bottom 10 Percent on Creative Class Share of Workforce, 2016

Type of county Number of counties in bottom 10 percent Share of bottom 10 percent Share of county type
Urban county
Part of large urban metro 22 7% 5.3%
Part of medium urban metro 9 2.9% 2.8%
Part of small urban metro 24 7.6% 6.9%
Rural county: adjacent to a metro
Large rural county 10 3.2% 4.6%
Medium rural county 109 34.7% 1.3%
Small rural county 44 14% 18.7%
Rural county: not adjacent to a metro
Large rural county 6 1.9% 5.7%
Medium rural county 49 15.6% 10.9%
Small rural county 41 13.1% 9.5%

The same basic pattern comes through when we look at the share of counties that rank in the bottom 10 percent on their creative-class workforce share. Although urban counties have a smaller share of places in the bottom 10 percent, each type of urban and rural place has some low-ranking counties.

There is a good deal less variation in the growth of the creative class across urban and rural places than you might imagine. Around the country, the creative class grew by 1.3 percent overall between 2010 and 2016. Which type of place saw the largest creative-class growth? Large rural counties that are not adjacent to metro areas had a growth rate of 1.8 percent, better even than urban counties in large metro areas (1.7 percent). Large rural counties that are adjacent to large metros also saw above-average growth.

Once again, we see a pattern that is more complex and varied than the myth of thriving urban places versus unmitigated rural decline and despair. While it is true that large urban places have the largest numbers and highest shares of the creative class, there are many rural places where the creative class is thriving. They are home to universities and colleges, have significant arts and cultural organizations and scenes, and benefit from abundant natural amenities. When it comes to talent and the creative class, there are winners and losers among all types of places, up and down the urban-rural spectrum.

CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky contributed editorial assistance for this article.

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