There's no longer one rural America - could there be five?

April 17, 2022

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There's no longer one rural America - could there be five?

I grew up in and spent a good deal of my adult life in the US. Except for summers in our cottage in Connecticut, it was an urban existence. My hometown was New York though my family also spent some time in Sarasota and Tallahassee in Florida.

Rural America was something you flew over or much more rarely rode a train through. My parents never spoke of it and my school friends and I knew little of it. There was the East coast and then there was California and somewhere in the middle there were cowboys and the Mississippi River. In that vast space they grew corn and cotton, and herded cows. I can honestly say I never met anyone who was willing to admit that that they came from “rural America.”

Even today pundits and politicians talk as if the territory between NY and LA was a monolithic land where similar people think similar thoughts and live according to similar mores—mostly in small dying towns or on farms. And, of course, they’re all white, Evangelical Christian and Republican.

As a result, I found this new study fascinating and revealing. The researchers, after a close study of Ohio, identified five different types of rural communities.

The list includes farming areas that many imagine to be stereotypically rural, but researchers also found communities of the rural poor and booming small towns attracting affluent young adults from nearby cities. Three of the five types of rural communities were found near the outskirts of major metropolitan areas.

What the researchers say: “The line between urban and rural areas is getting blurred and very dynamic,” said the study’s co-author. “We are seeing a rural America these days that encompasses different types of people who are making homes there for very different reasons.”

While the study was done in Ohio, the researchers believe most states have a variety of different types of rural communities, even if the types aren’t all the same as they found in Ohio. The study was published online recently in the Journal of Land Use Science.

The researchers analyzed data on migration between census tracts in Ohio, comparing tracts in 2008 and 2016 to see who had moved within the state during that time. They analyzed only the 566,608 households that moved either to or from a rural census tract within the state.

Households were categorized by income and age group.

The results showed that rural census tracts as a whole experienced a positive net migration of 1.2%, while metropolitan urban and smaller cities lost households. Migration either from or to rural areas accounted for 27.4% of the total household movement within the state.

“Rural census tracts close to large metro areas overwhelmingly added new people, while other remote rural areas had only slight gains or lost residents,” said the lead author.

The analysis showed communities could be separated into five types, based on similar migration patterns. The first three clusters were all found near metropolitan areas:

  • Urbanizing rural had the highest gains of new households, receiving mostly high-income and young adults coming from metro suburban areas. “These are mainly small towns that experienced booms when a number of high-income households moved in, creating a new, larger core community,” she explained.  
  • Suburban middle-income destinations attracted young people from nearby metro areas. Unlike the urbanizing rural group, they were more spread out over an area, she said. “They are living in these far-flung areas where their school is here, the job is over there, and the shopping is someplace completely different. They do a lot of commuting.”
  • Rural low-income destinations had the highest gains among low-income and older households. They attracted residents from both the nearby metro areas and other rural areas. “These are people going where they can find jobs and affordable housing,” a co-author said. “These census tracts are isolated from nearby affluent urbanizing areas.”

The remaining two types of communities were farther away from cities:

  • Stable rural areas typically had small increases in residents moving in and were generally associated with farming or rural industrial corridors.
  • The stagnating rural areas were clustered in the Appalachian region in the southeastern part of the state. These are often in forested and mining areas with little farming. “This is where rural exodus takes place, with people generally moving to other rural areas to find opportunities,” she said.

Overall, the results showed two related trends, the researchers noted. First was the greater variation among rural regions, showing that rural America is no longer a monolith. But at the same time, each type of rural community was attracting the same kind of people, becoming less diverse.

“We have more different kinds of communities in rural areas, but internally they are becoming more uniform,” the researchers said.

So, what? What I find depressing about this study—and another of others which have highlighted the same trend—is the way that people in the US seem to be increasingly forming communities composed of people of the same education, income, religion and race. Previous research has indicated that this extends to being adherents of the same political party.

We’re becoming increasingly tribal. This is in line with our genetics—we tend to associate with and trust those that we have more in common with. They become part of our “tribe.” The tribe unites around those commonalities and also develops a distrust and fear of other groups or tribes.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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