Much of rural America is doomed to decline

Public policy solutions need to grapple with, not ignore, this economic reality.

 

This article was originally published by The Conversation and is republished here with permission.

Since the Great Recession, most of the nation’s rural counties have struggled to recover lost jobs and retain their people. The story is markedly different in the nation’s largest urban communities.

I’m writing from Iowa, where every four years presidential hopefuls swoop in to test how voters might respond to their various ideas for fixing the country’s problems.

But what to do about rural economic and persistent population decline is the one area that has always confounded them all.

The facts are clear and unarguable. Most of the nation’s smaller urban and rural counties are not growing and will not grow.

Let’s start with my analysis of U.S. Commerce Department data.

Metropolitan areas consist of those counties with central cities of at least 50,000, along with the surrounding counties that are economically dependent on them. They make up 36% of all counties. Between 2008, the cusp of the Great Recession, and 2017, they enjoyed nearly 99% of all job and population growth.

What remained of job and population growth was divided among the 21% of counties that are called micropolitans, which have midsized cities with between 10,000 and 50,000 residents, and the remaining 42% of counties that are rural.

Nationally, 71% of all metropolitan counties grew between 2008 and 2017, but more than half of the remaining micropolitan and rural counties did not grow or shrank in population.

Regional breakdown

Regional outcomes were also sharply divergent. The West and the South combined had 72% and 82% of the job and population gains, respectively, while the Northeast and the Midwest split the remainder.

Economic and population declines among micropolitan and rural areas were especially strong in the Northeast and the Midwest. Eighty-seven percent of the micropolitan counties contracted in the Northeast, as did 85% of their rural counties. In the Midwest, 61% of the micropolitans contracted, as did 81% of the rural counties.

Geographically, a large fraction of the nation is struggling to simply maintain the status quo. Yes, there are many struggling metropolitan regions, but there are many more midsized and rural counties wrestling with decline.

Bringing it back home, 69 of Iowa’s 99 counties have contracted since 2010, along with 10 of its 15 micropolitan counties. This ongoing struggle of midsized counties has negative economic and social consequences. Residents in surrounding rural areas depend on them for jobs, essential services, public goods and other commercial and recreational amenities.

There is, in short, a regional ripple effect. When micropolitan counties falter, neighboring rural counties that depend on them often falter, too. This is true in Iowa and evident as well across much of the U.S.

What’s behind the trends

Scholars and analysts have varying explanations for these outcomes.

The more rural areas are hollowing out the middle of the workforce. They contain lower percentages of people in the prime working ages of 25 to 54 because of persistent outmigration.

Others define the population losses in terms of widespread declines in demand for middle skill jobs due to automation and outsourcing in manufacturing, as well as technology advances in mining, forestry and agriculture.

Of late, manufacturing and technology firms claim that the woes of small urban and rural areas are due to skills gaps – that distressed economies could grow and their populations could stabilize if more people acquired more technical skills.

Fated to dwindle

The U.S. has been consistently urbanizing, especially for the past 100 years. Technology advances in manufacturing, agriculture, mining, fishing and forestry accelerated migration from rural to urban areas.

Over time, incremental innovations in those original core industries required fewer workers, further boosting migration away from rural areas. Much of the blue-collar and middle-income shares of more rural economies dwindled as a result.

Small and medium-sized urban areas – and the rural counties that are linked to them – are left with transportation, public works, housing and commercial bases that they struggle to maintain. Inevitably, blight ensues. Most micropolitan and rural communities have no viable economic Plan B, so I believe that the majority of them are fated to dwindle until eventually reaching some level of stability.

Federal and state governments provide them fresh water and wastewater treatment assistance, health care access, subsidized transportation and workforce training, but none of that alters the underlying forces inhibiting their collective prospects for growth. Every core industry originally undergirding these areas continues to shed jobs.

Meanwhile, the nation’s metropolitan cities continue to accumulate greater opportunities for meaningful jobs, career advancement and enhanced qualities of lives.

As a researcher who has studied rural economies for more than three decades, I urge policymakers to seriously consider the fact that most rural areas will not grow. It is important to develop policies that assure access to necessary public services, connect rural residents to modern technologies for the sake of participating meaningfully in modern society and safeguard that which is good and appealing about these less populated places.

Academics are good at isolating the causes and the consequences of rural decline, but we have yet to figure out what to do about it.

David Swenson is an Associate Scientist of Economics at Iowa State UniversityEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • ANCESTRAL LANDS ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGER
    Starting Salary: Grade C, $19.00 to 24.00 per/hour Location: Albuquerque or Gallup, NM Status: Full-Time, Non-Exempt Benefit Eligible: Full Benefits Eligible per Personnel Policies Program...
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...