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Defining rural America – Center on Rural Innovation


Figure 9

Graphic displaying the distribution of the metro fringe, open lands, and small towns populations across the regions of the United States

The data shows that over the last decade, population growth in areas defined by the census as rural has been largely in the metro fringe (Figure 10). Population in metro fringe areas grew by 8% — faster than the national average of 6.8%.  On average, people in these areas experience significantly better economic outcomes than those living in open lands and small town areas.

Figure 10

Graphic displaying the differences in population characteristics between the open lands, metro fringe, and small towns groups

When considering America’s small towns, the picture is nearly reversed.

Small town areas, which are only included as part of the nonmetro definition, experienced a population decline over the past decade. These areas are largely concentrated in the South and Midwest, which together account for 73% of the small town population. Employment grew by just 1% in the last five years. Per capita income is 30% lower than in metro fringe areas. The poverty rate is more than twice as high, and nearly 17% of the population lives in persistent poverty areas.

Small town areas represent a much more diverse population than the areas classified as rural by the U.S. census definition. In 2019, the diversity score in small town areas was 50% higher than that of  metro fringe and open lands areas. As made clear in Figure 11, less than one quarter of the overall rural population lives in small towns, yet over a third of rural Black and Hispanic or Latino people reside in these towns.  In short, while small towns are often left out of the story told by the census rural definition, they represent one of the most diverse portions of rural America (the second story in the Rural Aperture project will dig deeper into the issue of rural racial and ethnic diversity).

Figure 11

Graphic displaying the different racial composition of the open lands, metro fringe, and small towns groups

Open lands areas encompass a wide range of places, and are included in both the U.S. census and nonmetro definitions. Figure 8 shows that open lands areas take on two forms. In the Midwest, South, and Northeast, open lands areas are concentrated around small towns and metro areas, representing areas that are typically rich in agricultural resources.  In the West, open lands encompass plains, plateaus, deserts, and mountain areas. Because open lands areas in the West are so sparsely populated, they often lack access to infrastructure and critical economic and social resources.

Focusing on the open lands areas is particularly important for surfacing data on native populations. Nearly one-quarter of the Native population in the U.S. — which in this calculation includes American Indian and Alaska Native — live in open lands areas (compared to 8% of the total population), and a significant portion of Native lands fall within the open lands category.1 Data about open lands offers a different view into employment growth, per capita income, and poverty rates: They have higher employment growth and higher per capita income than small towns, but a larger share of the population lives in persistent poverty areas. 

The differences in who is counted and who is excluded across the rural definitions impacts understandings of critical issues like diversity, equity, and economic opportunity in rural America. Across the rural definitions, it is clear that income inequality is a growing problem, but understanding economic disparities between racial and ethnic groups varies widely depending on the definition that’s used.

Figure 12 shows that significant differences emerge when comparing per capita income across definitions within a single group. Rural Asian Americans living in metro fringe areas have double the per capita income of those living in small towns. Similarly, rural Black Americans have 71% higher per capita income in the metro fringe than in small towns.

Differences across groups also vary when considering different components of the rural definitions. The per capita income among rural white Americans living in metro fringe areas was 53% higher than that of rural Black Americans living in the metro fringe. When we compare across small towns, both groups have low per capita income, but the difference between them is much larger: Per capita income among rural white Americans was 74% higher than the rural Black Americans living in small towns. As a result, differences between per capita income appear larger when using the nonmetro definition than the census definition. 

Figure 12

Graphic displaying differences in per capita income across racial and ethnic groups

The economic disparities between racial and ethnic groups vary substantially across rural definitions, and thus, the choices we make on which federal definition of rural to use can have a significant effect on shaping our understanding of issues around racial and ethnic diversity and equity.

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