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Know the West

The many faces of rural America


Rural America is no longer Norman Rockwell’s version, if it ever was. Such is the lesson of a recent report by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, a policy research center that focuses on rural communities. The report, entitled Place Matters: Challenges and Opportunities in Four Rural Americas, makes clear that it is no longer possible to broadly characterize rural parts of the country. “Rural” now encompasses both wealthy areas with upwardly mobile newcomers in search of a pastoral lifestyle and impoverished places with few jobs and a steadily declining population. Not to mention everything in between.

The authors of the report—which was derived from a survey of 7,800 people in 19 counties—propose that policy makers think of rural communities as belonging to one of four categories.

One category is the “amenity-rich” area, a place with mountains, forests or other natural graces that draw vacationers, retirees and second-home buyers. (Colorado’s Park and Chaffee Counties filled this role in the report.) Another category is the “declining resource-dependent” area that was once supported by agriculture, mining or other industry and is no longer booming. A third type is the “amenity-driven growth and resource-based decline,” a transitional area in which the previous two categories are combined. (Clatsop County in Oregon and Pacific County in Washington, both once sustained by the timber industry, were two counties representing this category in the study.) Finally there are the “chronically poor” regions, represented in the study by counties in Appalachia and the southern Delta.

Many of the report's findings are not earth-shattering. Few will be shocked to hear that 48 percent of inhabitants in the amenity-rich counties are college graduates, compared to 26 percent of the chronically poor. The poorest places in the survey area tend, sadly but not surprisingly, to be the most ethnically diverse. And people living in the amenity-rich areas are more likely to say that conservation measures restricting development are a good thing than those in the other categories.

But the study does reveal some interesting parallels between rural communities. A lack of job opportunities was cited as the most important problem in every area. And across the board respondents expressed a strong distrust of local government.

Some counties also experience the same problems for different reasons. For example all four categories have trouble retaining young people. In poor places, this stems from the lack of jobs, while in more affluent areas the lack of affordable housing plays a larger role.

Survey questions for the report encompassed the economy, demographics, the environment, religion and trust in government, and community infrastructure.

“The tapestry of rural America is complex,” the authors conclude, a sentiment with which both ski bums and coalminers would likely agree.