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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Why a fractured nation needs to remember King Jr.’s message of love

Martin Luther King Jr.‘s message of love matters today. Tami Chappell/Reuters
Martin Luther King Jr.‘s message of love matters today. Tami Chappell/Reuters

Joshua F.J. Inwood, Pennsylvania State University

The 2016 election campaign was arguably the most divisive in a generation. And even after Donald Trump’s victory, people are struggling to understand what his presidency will mean for the country. This is especially true for many minority groups who were singled out during the election campaign and have since experienced discrimination and threats of violence.

Yet, as geography teaches us, this is not the first time America has faced such a crisis – this divisiveness has a much longer history. I study the civil rights movement and the field of peace geographies. We faced similar crises related to the broader civil rights struggles in the 1960s.

So, what can be draw from the past that is relevant to the present? Specifically, how can we heal a nation that is divided along race, class and political lines?

As outlined by Martin Luther King Jr., the role of love, in engaging individuals and communities in conflict, is crucial today. By recalling King’s vision, I believe, we can have opportunities to build a more inclusive and just community that does not retreat from diversity but draws strength from it.

King’s vision

King spent his public career working towards ending segregation and fighting racial discrimination. For many people the pinnacle of this work occurred in Washington, DC when he delivered his famous “I have a dream speech.”

Less well known and often ignored is his later work on ending poverty and his fight on behalf of poor people. In fact when King was assassinated in Memphis he was in the midst of building towards a national march on Washington DC that would have brought tens of thousands of economically disenfranchised people to advocate for policies that would ameliorate poverty. This effort – known as the “Poor Peoples Campaign” –– aimed to dramatically shift national priorities to the health and welfare of working peoples.

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at interfaith civil rights rally, San Francisco Cow Palace, June 30, 1964.
George Conklin, CC BY-NC-ND

Scholars such as Derek Alderman, Paul Kingsbury, and Owen Dwyer have emphasized King’s work on behalf of civil rights in a twenty-first century context. They argue the Civil Rights Movement in general, and King’s work specifically holds lessons for social justice organizing and classroom pedagogy in that it helps students and the broader public see how the struggle for civil rights continues.

These arguments build on sociologist Michael Eric Dyson who also argues we need to reevaluate King’s work as it reveals the possibility to build a 21st Century social movement that can address continued inequality and poverty through direct action and social protest.

Idea of love

King focused on the role of love as key to building healthy communities and the ways in which love can and should be at the center of our social interactions.

King’s final book, Where do we go From Here: Chaos or Community? published in the year before his assassination, provides us with his most expansive vision of an inclusive, diverse and economically equitable US nation. For King, love is a key part of creating communities that work for everyone and not just the few at the expense of the many.

Love was not a mushy or easily dismissed emotion, but was central to the kind of community he envisioned. King made distinctions between three forms of love which are key to the human experience.

The three forms of love are “Eros,” “Philia” and most importantly “Agape.” For King, Eros is a form of love that is most closely associated with desire while Philia is often the love that is experienced between very good friends or family. These visions are different from Agape.

Agape, which was at the center of the movement he was building, was the moral imperative to engage with one’s oppressor in a way that showed the oppressor the ways their actions dehumanize and detract from society. He said,

“In speaking of love we are not referring to some sentimental emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense[…] When we speak of loving those who oppose us we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word Agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming goodwill for all [sic] men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. ”

King further defined agape when he argued at the University of California at Berkeley that the concept of agape “stands at the center of the movement we are to carry on in the Southland.” It was a love that demanded that one stand up for oneself and tells those who oppress that what they were doing was wrong.

Why this matters now

In the face of violence directed at minority communities and in a deepening political divisions in the country, King’s words and philosophy are perhaps more critical for us today than at any point in the recent past.

King’s vision can help bring communities together.
Noah Berger/Reuters

As King noted all persons exist in an interrelated community and all are dependent on each other. By connecting love to community, King argued there were opportunities to build a more just and economically sustainable society which respected difference. As he said,

“Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community… Therefore if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavages of a broken community.”

King outlined a vision in which we are compelled to work towards making our communities inclusive. They reflect the broad values of equality and democracy. Through an engagement with one another as its foundation, agape provides opportunities to work towards common goals.

Building a community today

At a time, when the nation feels so divided, there is a need to bring back King’s vision of agape-fueled community building. That would move us past simply seeing the other side as being wholly motivated by hate. The reality is that economic changes since the Great Recession have wrought tremendous pain and suffering in many quarters of the United States. Many Trump supporters were motivated by a desperate need to change the system.

However, simply dismissing the concerns voiced by many that Trump’s election has empowered racists and misogynists would be wrong as well.

These cleavages that we see will most likely intensify as Donald Trump prepares to take the oath of office as the 45th President of the United States.

To bridge these divisions is to begin a difficult conversation about where we are as a nation and where we want to go. Engaging in a conversation through agape signals a willingness to restore broken communities and to approach difference with an open mind.

It also exposes and rejects those that are using race and racism and fears of the “other” to advance a political agenda that intensifies the divisions in our nation.

The Conversation

Joshua F.J. Inwood, Associate Professor of Geography Senior Research Associate in the Rock Ethics Institute, Pennsylvania State University

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