Rurality Matters

Written by Kelly Ann Holder, Alison Fields, and Daphne Lofquist

 Today, about 60 million residents of the United States live in areas designated as rural by the U.S. Census Bureau. So, what exactly does rural look like? “Rural” can span from the less-populated towns outside of large and small city centers to remote areas in the mountains, plains, and deserts across the nation.

Counties can be a mixture of urban and rural areas. To understand the characteristics of rural residents in different rural settings, we categorized the 3,142 counties in the U.S. into three levels of rurality based on the percentage of the population living in the rural areas of the county. We used the 2010 definition of urban and rural as determined by the decennial census population. The counties were delineated as mostly urban (less than 50.0 percent of the county population lived in rural areas), mostly rural (50.0 to 99.9 percent lived in rural areas), and completely rural (100.0 percent lived in rural areas). Based on these county categories, we identified 704 counties as completely rural, meaning all 5.3 million people lived in rural areas (see Figure 1).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The characteristics of rural residents differed depending on the level of rurality of their county of residence. Let us start with the population of 47 million adults 18 years and older who lived in rural areas. Rural adults in the completely rural counties were older than rural adults in each of the other two county categories (see Figure 2). A higher percentage of rural adults in counties that were mostly or completely rural also lived in their state of birth (68.7 and 66.7 percent) compared with rural adults living in mostly urban counties (62.5 percent). While we cannot tell from these data if people have moved away from their state of birth at some other point in time, the estimates suggest that rural residents more often reside in or return to live in their state of birth over their lifetimes.

 As the rurality of a county increased, the percentage of rural adults who lived alone increased, while the percentage who were currently married decreased (see Figure 2). Fifteen percent of rural adults in the completely rural counties lived alone, compared with 10.3 percent of rural adults in mostly urban counties and 12.3 percent in mostly rural counties. About 58 percent of rural adults in the completely rural counties were married, compared with 63.2 percent of rural adults in mostly urban counties and 61.0 percent in mostly rural counties.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The percentages of rural adults with a Bachelor’s degree or higher decreased as the rurality increased, as did the percentages of the working-age adults who were employed (see Figure 2). Fifteen percent of rural adults in completely rural counties had a Bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 23.1 percent of rural adults living in mostly urban counties, and 16 percent in mostly rural counties. The percentage of employed rural adults 18 to 64 years old was 6 percentage points lower in completely rural counties compared with those in mostly urban counties.

Conversely, the rates of poverty and uninsured for rural adults increased as the rurality of their residence increased. Nearly 16 percent of rural adults living in completely rural counties were uninsured and 15.8 percent were in poverty.

Next, we turn to the 13 million children under the age of 18 who lived in rural areas.  Rural children were a lower percentage of the population in the completely rural counties compared with the other county categories (see Figure 3). This is not surprising given that the rural population was older in completely rural counties. The percentage of rural children living in married-couple households decreased as the rurality of their residence increased. About 71.0 percent of rural own children (meaning the unmarried biological, step, or adopted child of the householder) in the completely rural counties lived in married-couple households, about 8.0 percentage points lower than rural children living in mostly urban counties. The percentage of rural children who lived in households headed by grandparents increased with rurality. Almost 10.0 percent of rural children in completely rural counties lived in grandparent-headed households.

The rate of rural children living in poverty was also higher in completely rural counties, compared with rural children in other types of counties (see Figure 3). The rate of uninsurance for rural children in both mostly rural and completely rural counties was not statistically different (about 8.0 percent); however, it was higher than the rate of uninsurance for rural children in mostly urban counties (6.5 percent).

What we can see from these comparisons is that rural does not imply a single type of community. In terms of the characteristics of the rural population, rurality matters.

For more information on how the Census Bureau defines urban and rural geographies, see our new brief Defining Rural at the U.S. Census Bureau.


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Homes on the Range: Homeownership Rates Are Higher in Rural America

Written by: Christopher Mazur

For decades, homeownership rates have been an important indicator of the health of housing markets all across the United States. Communities use these data to recognize the changing landscape of their housing markets by analyzing patterns in the percentage of owner-occupied housing units compared  to all occupied units. Homebuilders, financial institutions and realtors all depend on homeownership data to determine what type of housing to build, finance and sell to prospective homebuyers. While last decade’s housing crash and Great Recession altered the economy and conditions of housing markets throughout the nation, studies have shown that most Americans continue to believe homeownership is both desirable and attainable.

Data from the American Community Survey provide the opportunity to learn more about homeownership in America and how it differs between rural and urban areas. With the American Community Survey 5-year data for geographies with populations less than 65,000, homeownership can be analyzed beyond just the nation and regions but also by rurality of a county. For more information about how the U.S. Census Bureau defines urban and rural geographies, see Defining Rural at the U.S. Census Bureau.

According to 2011-2015 American Community Survey data, there were 116.9 million occupied housing units in the nation. Of these occupied housing units, 22.6 million (19.3 percent) were located in rural areas and 94.4 million (80.7 percent) in urban areas.

In general, rural areas in the United States have higher homeownership rates than urban areas.  Compared with urban areas, where the homeownership rate was 59.8 percent, rural areas had a homeownership rate of 81.1 percent. In all four regions, the homeownership rate was higher in rural areas than in urban areas. In the Northeast, rural areas had a homeownership rate of 83.8 percent, whereas urban areas had a rate of 58.2 percent. Homeownership rates in rural areas accounted for 83.6 percent in the Midwest and 79.8 percent in the South, while in urban areas it accounted for 63.3 percent and 60.7 percent in those regions, respectively. The West had a homeownership rate of 77.3 percent in rural areas and a rate of 56.7 percent in urban areas.

County level analysis was conducted by categorizing counties into three levels of rurality based on the percentage of the decennial census population living in the rural areas of the county in 2010. The counties were delineated as completely rural (100.0 percent rural), mostly rural (50.0 to 99.9 percent rural) and mostly urban (less than 50.0 percent rural). (See all U.S. counties and their level of rurality here.)

Based on the three levels of rurality for counties, homeownership rates increase as the proportion of the population living in rural areas increases. Both completely rural (76.2 percent) and mostly rural (74.4 percent) counties had higher median homeownership rates than the 68.2 percent in mostly urban counties (there was no statistical difference between the completely rural and mostly rural rates).  Similar to national findings, the homeownership rates in completely rural and mostly rural counties in the Midwest, South and West regions were higher than those counties that were mostly urban (again, there was no statistical difference between the completely rural and mostly rural rates). Completely rural counties in the Northeast had homeownership rates higher than both mostly rural and mostly urban counties in that region.

To understand why homeownership rates are higher in rural areas than urban areas, some of the characteristics that have traditionally been indicators of homeownership can be taken into account. The likelihood of owning a house increases as age increases. With a median age for the adult population of 51 in rural areas compared to 45 in urban areas, the adult population in rural areas tend to be older and naturally in stages of life in which owning a house is more likely. Furthermore, householders age 65 or older, an age group that regularly has some of the highest homeownership rates, accounted for 27.7 percent of all households in rural areas and 22.4 percent in urban areas.

Households consisting of married couples are a group that generally has higher homeownership rates compared to non-married households. Nationally, the homeownership rate for married-couple households was 79.8 percent, higher than a homeownership rate of 49.0 percent for non-married households. Married-couple households comprised 58.6 percent of all households in rural areas, higher than the 45.8 percent of households in urban areas. Furthermore, there were a higher proportion of owner-occupied houses owned by married-couple households in rural areas (89.0 percent) than in urban areas (77.0 percent).

Being a homeowner carries a huge financial commitment. Paying a monthly mortgage, utilities, real estate taxes, property insurance and any applicable fees for living in a condominium or mobile home can quickly add up. However, these housing costs were not as high in rural areas as they were in urban areas. In rural areas, the median monthly housing cost for households paying a mortgage was $1,271, lower than the median monthly housing cost of $1,561 in urban areas.

Another interesting fact about owner-occupied households in rural and urban areas is that  a higher percentage of housing units were owned “free and clear” in rural areas (44.0 percent) than urban areas (32.3 percent). That is, there was no mortgage or loan on the house. As a result, by not having a mortgage these households have lower monthly housing costs which frees up more financial resources for discretionary use.

Understanding our changing population and housing stock is important to the well-being of all American communities.  The American Community Survey is the only data source that gives all areas, whether they are big or small, rural or urban, the ability to better plan and address local housing trends and needs.


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A Comparison of Rural and Urban America: Household Income and Poverty

By: Alemayehu Bishaw and Kirby G. Posey, Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division, U.S. Census Bureau

The U.S. Census Bureau today released data that show that nationally, rural Americans have lower median household incomes than urban households, but people living in rural areas have lower poverty rates than their urban counterparts. According to the 2015 American Community Survey, median household income for rural households was $52,386, about 4.0 percent lower than the median for urban households, $54,296. About 13.3 percent of people in rural areas lived in families with incomes below the official poverty thresholds. The poverty rate for people in urban areas was 16.0 percent. Income inequality, as measured by the Gini index, was lower for rural households than urban households.

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, when we look at specific demographic groups, regions and states, the story is more complex.

Median incomes for rural households in the Northeast ($62,291) and Midwest ($55,704) were higher than their urban counterparts, $60,655 and $51,266, respectively. On the other hand, median incomes for urban households in the South and West were higher. Rural households in the South had a median household income of $46,891 compared to $50,989 for those living in urban areas. For households in the West, rural median household income was $56,061, lower than the $58,545 median for urban households.

Across all four regions, poverty rates were consistently lower for those living in rural areas than for those living in urban areas, with the largest differences in the Midwest and Northeast.

Among the states, 42 had higher poverty rates among people living in urban areas than those living in rural areas. Conversely, in seven states, people in rural areas had higher poverty rates. In one state (South Dakota), poverty rates for urban and rural residents were not statistically different from each other.

In 32 states, median household income was higher for rural households than for urban households. In Rhode Island, for example, median household income for rural areas ($85,278) was about 57 percent higher than the median for urban households ($54,324). In 14 states, the opposite was the case. Median income for urban households was higher than for rural households. In four states, Minnesota, Delaware, Florida and West Virginia, the differences in the median household incomes were not statistically significant.

Rural median household incomes in Connecticut ($93,382) and New Jersey ($92,972) were the highest in the nation. The difference between rural median household incomes in Connecticut and New Jersey was not statistically significant.

Rural median household income in Mississippi ($40,200) was the lowest.

For rural areas, the poverty rates varied from the lowest (4.6 percent) in Connecticut to the highest (21.9 percent) in New Mexico. Poverty rates for the urban areas ranged from the lowest (8.7 percent) in Alaska to the highest (24.9 percent) in Mississippi.

Across all major age groups (children under age 18, for people ages 18 to 64 and for people age 65 and older) and both sexes, poverty rates for people living in urban areas were higher than for people living in rural areas.

Interestingly, households headed by younger householders had higher median household incomes in rural areas whereas households headed by older householders had higher income in urban areas.

  • Rural households with a householder under age 25 had a median household income of $31,042. Their urban counterparts had a median household income of $25,656.
  • Similarly, rural households with a householder ages 25 to 44 had a median household income of $59,328 versus $58,915 for those in urban areas.
  • Households with householders ages 45 to 64 had a higher median household income in urban areas than rural areas, $66,399 and $62,169, respectively.
  • The same was true for those households with a householder age 65 and over, $39,202 in urban areas and $37,310 in rural areas.

American Indian and Alaska Natives living in rural areas had higher poverty rates than their counterparts in urban areas, while for whites and Asians, rural poverty rates were lower than urban poverty rates. On the other hand, non-Hispanic whites living in rural areas had higher poverty rates than those living in urban areas. Poverty rates in rural and urban areas were not statistically different from each other for black/African Americans and Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders. Hispanics, who can be of any race, also had poverty rates for urban and rural areas that were not statistically different from each other.

Median household income was higher for the urban population across all race groups except Asians. There was no statistical difference in median household income in urban and rural areas for Asian householders.

Income inequality as measured by the Gini index for rural households was lower than the Gini index for urban households in 36 states, indicating less income inequality. In only six states, income inequality was greater for rural households than for urban households: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii and New Mexico. In eight states, the differences in the Gini indexes were not statistically significant.

For more information about how the U.S. Census Bureau defines urban and rural geographies, see the Rurality Matters blog.

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Beyond the Farm: Rural Industry Workers in America

Written by: Lynda Laughlin, Industry and Occupation Statistics Branch

Rural America faces unique challenges and opportunities compared with urban America. However, the contributions of rural communities go far beyond the farm. The rural economy has diversified substantially since the mid-20th Century. Jobs in the agricultural sector are on the decline while jobs in manufacturing, retail sales and educational services are on the rise.

Rural is often a catch phrase denoting everything that is not urban or metropolitan. This blog focuses specifically on the 704 counties in which 100.0 percent of the population lives in a rural area (referred to as “rural counties” in this analysis). For more information about how the U.S. Census Bureau defines urban and rural geographies, see Defining Rural at the U.S. Census Bureau.

The newly released Census Bureau data from the American Community Survey 5-year statistics show that rural counties vary widely among themselves and across regions as demonstrated by industry statistics.

Figure 1 shows the economy in rural counties is diverse and not necessarily dependent on farming or manufacturing. In fact, the largest segment of the civilian workforce in rural counties (22.3 percent) is employed in the education services, and health care and social assistance industry. This industry is mainly made up of schools, hospitals, home health care services and similar employers. It is in this industry where you find our elementary and middle school teachers and registered nurses. Another 10.9 percent of the workforce in rural counties is employed in the retail trade industry. A smaller share of the workforce is employed in the finance, wholesale trade and information industries combined.

While no longer the top industries in these areas, resource-based activities such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting and mining still employ one out of 10 workers in rural counties. A somewhat higher share of rural employment in is in manufacturing. In fact, 12.1 percent of the rural civilian workforce is in this industry, performing duties as assemblers and fabricators, production workers and managers..

Employment by industry also varies in size and by region. Landscape, access to natural resources and availability of labor may shape the geography of rural industries and employment. Manufacturing is less prominent in rural counties in the West compared with rural counties in the Midwest, South and Northeast. In contrast, a larger percentage of the civilian workforce in rural counties in the Midwest and West is employed in the agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting and mining industry compared with those in the Northeast and the South.

 

 

 

Employment in the educational service, health care and social assistance industry is more evenly distributed across rural counties. In more than half of the 704 rural counties, 22.3 percent or more of the civilian workforce works in this industry. Unlike other industries, employment in this industry is not dependent on access to natural resources, but may be more dependent on changing demographics. Nationwide, increases in school enrollment and an aging population are driving up the demand for educators and health care practitioners in rural and urban areas alike.

As the economy continues to change in the face of changing demographics and advances in technology, efforts to understand the impact on the rural economy and its workers requires reliable data. The American Community Survey is an ideal data source because it provides detailed statistics for areas with small populations. The information collected from American households sampled in the nationwide survey provides researchers and policy makers the tools needed to understand the opportunities and challenges facing rural communities from the Great Plains to the Mississippi Delta and beyond.

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The Foreign-Born by Urban-Rural Status of Counties: 2011-2015

Written by: Thomas Gryn, Population Division, Foreign-Born Population Branch

According to the latest Census Bureau data from the American Community Survey, the foreign-born population, or anyone who is not a U.S. citizen at birth (including those who become U.S. citizens through naturalization), comprised 13.2 percent of the overall U.S. population between 2011-2015.

While much of the country’s foreign-born population resides in urban counties, American Community Survey data highlight that a number of counties across the country, in urban as well as rural settings, are home to immigrants.

A comparison of counties that are mostly urban (populations that are 50.0 percent or more urban), mostly rural (50.0 to 99.9 percent rural), and completely rural shows that mostly urban counties were more likely to have higher percentages of foreign-born than those that were mostly or completely rural.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Data from the American Community Survey (2011-2015) on the distribution of the foreign-born population by rural or urban status for U.S. counties show that:

  • Among mostly urban counties, many with higher-than-average concentrations of foreign-born people were located in parts of the Northeast, in Florida, Illinois and Washington, and along counties that border Mexico, especially in California and Texas. In mostly urban counties, the median value of foreign-born residents was 5.3 percent. Miami-Dade County, Fla., had 51.6 percent foreign-born, one of the highest rates among mostly urban counties.
  • Among mostly rural counties, those with higher-than-average foreign-born percentages were in Texas, southern Idaho and North Carolina. The median percentage of the foreign-born in mostly rural counties was 1.9 percent. Gaines County, Texas, had 24.2 percent foreign-born, one of the highest rates among mostly rural counties.
  • Among completely rural counties, those with higher-than-average percentages of foreign-born were in Texas and western Kansas. The median value for completely rural counties was 1.4 percent foreign-born. Aleutians East Borough, Alaska, had 45.1 percent foreign-born, one of the highest rates among completely rural counties.

For more information about how the U.S. Census Bureau defines urban and rural geographies, see this brief on Defining Rural at the United States Census Bureau.

 

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