Is “Rural Decline” Just a Statistical Artifact?

Maybe rural America is doing OK after all.Kevin Drum

By coincidence, the Washington Post ran a piece yesterday making the same case that I did this morning: rural areas aren’t really in economic decline. The argument presented by Andrew Van Dam is simple and intriguing.

It has to do with the way the Census Bureau defines rural. Basically, it doesn’t. It defines urban, and then labels everything left over as rural. And that’s a problem: their definition of urban is any city (plus its surrounding areas) with a population of 50,000 or more. Regardless of whether you think this is a good definition, you can see one big problem with it: any rural area eventually gets reclassified as urban if it’s successful and growing. By definition, the only areas left over are those that are declining or growing slowly, and those are the ones we classify as rural.

Van Dam makes the case that if we applied the Census definition to the country in 1950 and then tracked all the areas defined as rural in 1950, it turns out that rural America is doing fine. But in real life, we reclassify these areas every few years and move the best performers into the urban column. Here’s what that looks like:

By 2018, we had reclassified so much of America that the population of “rural” America had barely grown at all because the only places left were the slowest-growing bits:

In a way, rural areas serve as urban America’s farm team: All their most promising prospects get called up to the big leagues, leaving the low-density margins populated by an ever-shrinking pool of those who couldn’t qualify….[But] the character of a place doesn’t necessarily change the moment a city crosses the 50,000-resident mark.

….About 6 in 10 U.S. adults who consider themselves “rural” live in an area classified as metropolitan by standards similar to those used above, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in 2017. And 3 in 4 of the adults who say they live in a “small town”? They’re also in a metro area.

Bottom line: the “decline” of rural America is mostly a statistical artifact. We keep redefining rural to exclude any successful rural areas, and by now the only rural places left are the ones that have been persistently bad performers for the past 70 years. But if “persistently bad performer for the past 70 years” is your definition of rural, it’s merely a tautology to say that rural areas are performing badly.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.