Where is ‘rural America,’ and what does it look like?

The view from Wyoming County, Pennsylvania. Cropped from nicholas_t/flickr, CC BY
The view from Wyoming County, Pennsylvania. Cropped from nicholas_t/flickr, CC BY

Kenneth Johnson, University of New Hampshire

Rural people and issues generally receive little attention from the urban-centric media and policy elites. Yet, rural America makes unique contributions to the nation’s character and culture as well as provides most of its food, raw materials, drinking water and clean air. The recent presidential election also reminds us that, though rural America may be ignored, it continues to influence the nation’s future.

“Rural America” is a deceptively simple term for a remarkably diverse collection of places. It includes nearly 72 percent of the land area of the United States and 46 million people. Farms, ranches, grain elevators and ethanol plants reflect the enduring importance of agriculture.

But, there is much more to rural America than agriculture. It includes manufacturing parks, warehouses and food processing plants strung along rural interstates; sprawling exurban expanses just beyond the outer edge of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas; regions where generations have labored to extract, process and ship coal, ore, oil and gas to customers near and far; timber and pulp mills deep in rural forests; industrial towns struggling to retain jobs in the face of intense global competition; and fast-growing recreational areas proximate to mountains, lakes and coastlines.

As a demographer studying rural America, I have documented both remarkable continuity and dramatic changes in the size, composition and distribution of the population spread across the vast rural landscape.

Where is rural America?

Clearly farms on the Great Plains are rural and the city of Chicago is not, but where is the boundary between what is rural and what is urban? There is no simple answer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency with primary responsibility for rural America, has multiple definitions of what is rural. The Census Bureau has yet another.

I rely upon a widely used USDA definition in which “rural areas” include everything that is outside a metropolitan area. These 1,976 counties were home to 46.2 million residents in 2015.

“Metropolitan areas” include counties with a city of 50,000 residents or more, together with adjacent counties – mostly suburban – closely linked to these urban cores. More than 275.3 million people live in these 1,167 urban counties.

Demographic trends in rural America

More that 90 percent of the U.S. population was rural in 1790. By 1920, that number had dwindled to just under 50 percent. Today, only 15 percent of the population resides in rural counties.

Growing economic and social opportunities in urban areas, coupled with mechanization and farm consolidation, caused millions of people to leave rural areas over the past century. The magnitude of the migration loss varied from decade to decade, but the pattern was consistent: more people left rural areas than arrived.

Hundreds of rural counties have far fewer people today than they did a century ago. In many, young adults have been leaving for generations, so few young women remain to have children. As a result, deaths exceed births in these counties, producing a downward spiral of population decline.

There were brief periods when the rural population rebounded in the 1970s and the 1990s. But, generally, the growth of the urban population throughout the 20th century has far exceeded that in rural areas. Between 2000 and 2015, the rural population grew by just 3.1 percent. Urban areas grew by 16.3 percent.

Hundreds of rural counties continue to lose population, but growth is widespread near urban areas and in recreational areas.
Provided by author

Demographic trends vary across the rural landscape. Rural population gains have been widespread in the west and southeast, at the periphery of large urban areas, and in recreational areas of the upper Great Lakes, the Ozarks and northern New England. Migration, largely from urban areas, fueled this growth. Migrants who venture just beyond the urban edge enjoy the lower density and housing costs of rural areas, but retain easy access to urban services and opportunities. In contrast, urban migrants to rural recreational counties enjoy a relaxed lifestyle in communities rich in scenic and leisure amenities.

In contrast, population losses were common in agricultural regions of the Great Plains and Corn Belt, in the Mississippi Delta, in the northern Appalachians, and in the industrial and mining belts of New York and Pennsylvania. Many people continue to leave these regions because economic and social opportunities are limited.

Recently, the Great Recession and its aftermath disrupted established rural demographic trends. Both immigration and internal migration diminished, as residents were “frozen in place” by houses they couldn’t sell and by a national job market that provided fewer incentives to move. Fertility rates also dropped to record lows during the recession and have yet to recover.

Fewer births diminished population gains in almost all rural areas, but migration patterns varied. Surprisingly, rural places that had once been fast-growing – rural countries adjacent to urban areas and recreational counties – seemed to slow down more. Meanwhile, the remote rural areas that had historically lost many people to migration were less affected, because fewer were willing to risk a move in such uncertain times. It’s not yet clear whether the reduced number of births and diminished migration to rural America in the era of Great Recession will continue.

Other demographic changes are underway in rural America as well. The population is rapidly becoming more diverse. Minorities represent 21 percent of the rural population, but produced 83 percent of the growth between 2000 and 2010. Hispanics are particularly important to this growing rural diversity.

Children are in the vanguard of this change. The rural minority child population has grown significantly recently, while the number of non-Hispanic white children diminished.

The rural population is also growing older. The median age in rural counties is 41.5. That’s already more than three years older than in urban counties. More than 16 percent of the rural population is over 65, compared to 12.5 percent of the urban population. While these older rural residents age in place, young adults continue to leave and the rural child population is diminishing.

Rural and urban America are intertwined

Few people appreciate that the fates of rural and urban America are inextricably linked. Improving the opportunities, accessibility and viability of rural areas is critical – both to the 46 million people who live there and to the much larger urban population that depends on rural America’s contributions to their material, environmental and social well-being. A vibrant rural America broadens the nation’s economic, intellectual and culture diversity.

Yet, rural areas face unique demographic, economic and institutional challenges. Distances are greater and places are more isolated. The advantages derived from businesses and services clustering together are limited. As a result, programs to expand health insurance and reform education may affect rural people and communities differently than in the 50 largest metropolitan areas. Such challenges are frequently overlooked in a policy and media environment dominated by urban interests.

Policymakers need to design comprehensive policies that can address the multifaceted challenges rural communities face. Fast-growing rural counties need programs capable of managing their growth and development.

In contrast, rural areas with diminishing populations need policies to ameliorate the adverse impacts of this migration. Sustained population loss can affect the availability of critical services like health care, education and emergency services. Resources such as broadband, capital and expertise can facilitate new development.

In the wake of the election upset which hinged, in part, on rural voters, more media companies have dispatched correspondents to rural areas. They, and everyone else with a newfound interest in rural America, need to understand that the people, places and institutions in this vast area are far from monolithic. Rural America has been, and continues to be, buffeted by a complex mix of economic, social and demographic forces.

The Conversation

Kenneth Johnson, Professor of Sociology and Senior Demographer, University of New Hampshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Counting 11 million undocumented immigrants is easier than you think

A line of people outside the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
A line of people outside the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Jennifer Van Hook, Pennsylvania State University

News organizations widely report that there are 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. But where does this figure come from?

Donald Trump has falsely asserted: “It could be three million. It could be 30 million. They have no idea what the number is.”

In the third debate, Hillary Clinton said, “We have 11 million undocumented people. They [undocumented parents] have 4 million American citizen children. 15 million people.”

The confusion is warranted. After all, the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask people about their immigration status, so how can we know much about the unauthorized foreign-born population?

Well, demographers have figured out a simple and effective way to estimate the number of unauthorized immigrants. In the last five years, my colleagues Frank D. Bean, James D. Bachmeier and I have conducted a series of studies that evaluate this method and its assumptions. Our research on the methods used to estimate the size of this group indicates that these estimates are reasonably accurate.

Here’s how it works.

A simple formula

Beginning in the late 1970s, a group of demographers consisting primarily of Jeffrey Passel, Robert Warren, Jacob Siegel, Gregory Robinson and Karen Woodrow introduced the “residual method” for estimating the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the country. At the time, Passel and his collaborators were affiliated with the U.S. Bureau of the Census and Warren with the Office of Immigration Statistics of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Much of this work was published in the form of internal reports, but some of it appeared in major journals.

The residual method uses an estimate of the total foreign-born population in the country (F), based on U.S. Census data. Researchers then subtract from it the number of legal immigrants residing here (L), estimated from government records of legal immigrants who receive “green cards” minus the number that died or left the country. The result is an estimate of the unauthorized population (U):

F – L = U

Various adjustments are typically made to this formula. Most adjustments are minor, but a particularly important one adjusts for what researchers call “coverage error” among the unauthorized foreign-born. Coverage error occurs when the census data underestimate the size of a group. This can occur when people live in nonresidential or unconventional locations – such as on the streets or in a neighbor’s basement – or when they fail to respond to the census. Coverage error could be particularly high among unauthorized immigrants because they may be trying to avoid detection.

Currently, the Department of Homeland Security and the Pew Hispanic Center are the two major producers of estimates of the unauthorized foreign-born population. This report, compiled by Passel, who now works at Pew, summarizes many of the estimates. It shows that the estimated number increased steadily from 3.5 million in 1990 to 12.2 million in 2007, but declined between 2007 and 2009 and has since stabilized at around 11 million.

How accurate are the estimates?

The residual method has been widely used and accepted since the late 1970s. Within a reasonable margin of error, it predicted the number of unauthorized immigrants to legalize under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which, among other things, granted permanent residency status to unauthorized immigrants who had been living in the country since 1982. The residual method predicted that about 2.2 million met the residency requirement and the actual number to come forward was about 1.7 million.

Both Department of Homeland Security and Pew have used the residual method to produce estimates of the unauthorized population since 2005. Despite using slightly different data and assumptions, Pew’s and the Department of Homeland Security’s estimates have never differed by more than 600,000 people, or 5.5 percent of the total unauthorized population.

Nevertheless, many skeptics question a key assumption of the residual method, which is that unauthorized immigrants participate in census surveys. Both Pew and the Department of Homeland Security inflate their estimates to account for the possibility that some unauthorized immigrants are missing from census data. Pew inflates by 13 percent and the Department of Homeland Security by 10 percent. But is this enough?

Young undocumented brothers from Mexico at their home in Paramount, California.
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

My colleagues and I estimated coverage error among Mexican immigrants, a group that composes 60 percent of all unauthorized immigrants. Even if they are not counted in a census, populations leave “fingerprints” of their presence in the form of deaths and births. Because people give birth and die with known regularity regardless of their legal status, we were able to use birth and death records of all Mexican-born persons to determine the number of the Mexican-born persons living in the U.S. We also looked at changes in Mexican census data between 1990 and 2010 to gauge the size of Mexico’s “missing” population, most of whom moved to the United States.

We then compared these estimates based on births, deaths and migration with the number of estimated Mexican immigrants in census data.

Based on this analysis, we found that the census missed as many as 26 percent of unauthorized immigrants in the early 2000s. We speculated that this could have been due to the large numbers of temporary Mexican labor migrants who were living in the United States at the time. Because many worked in construction during the housing boom and lived in temporary housing arrangements, it may have been particularly difficult to accurately account for them in census surveys. However, when the Great Recession and housing crisis hit, many of these temporary workers went home or stopped coming to the U.S. in the first place, and coverage error declined. By 2010, the coverage error may have been as low as 6 percent.

If current levels of coverage error for all unauthorized immigrants were as high as 26 percent, then the number living in the country could be as high as 13 million. But if coverage error were as low as 6 percent, then the figure could be as low as 10.3 million.

What this boils down to is that we have a pretty good idea of the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. It most likely falls within a narrow range somewhere between 10.3 million and 13 million. If coverage error has declined as much as we think it has, then the truth is at the lower end of this range. Despite widespread beliefs, unauthorized immigration is not increasing out of control and certainly is not as high as 30 million. Instead, it has probably really has stabilized somewhere around 11 million.

The Conversation

Jennifer Van Hook, Liberal Arts Research Professor of Sociology and Demography, Pennsylvania State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.