Where Is Rural America?

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There have been a lot of conversations recently about the growing urban/rural divide. And that divide is definitely worth exploring. But while a lot of ink has been spilled regarding the changing demographics of cities (and the perils of gentrification, suburbia, and numerous other urbanist issues), there seems to me to be less interest in who the roughly 60 million rural people (and/or voters) in this country are.
 
If you’re like me, if you try to picture a rural American, you’re probably thinking of somebody in the High Plains or the Llano Estacado, somewhere near the geographic center of this country.
 
But what if I told you that the population center of rural America was closer to the Appalachians than the Rockies? That the vast majority of rural Americans actually live in the shadows of its oldest cities rather than in the vast expanses west of the Mississippi?
 
Kansas City and Omaha are the biggest cities close to the geographic center of the lower 48. By the 2010 census, the states west of Kansas City (from North Dakota to Texas and everything west) account for roughly 14.3 million rural Americans. That’s less than a quarter of the rural population; the other 46 million are east.
 
Texas, unsurprisingly, is the state with the largest rural population. But second, and well ahead of third, is North Carolina. Pennsylvania is third. The next western state in the ranking doesn’t appear until California at #11, followed by Oklahoma at #22.
Rural Population by State.png
 
This makes sense when you think about it some. When the states east of the Mississippi were settled by Europeans, they did so without regard to large-scale farming or railroad-related considerations, and thus a relatively continuous series of small towns emerged. To the contrary, virtually all of the West was sparsely populated well into the 20th century, well after railroad infrastructure was in place and land that could be cultivated was increasingly consolidated for large-scale agricultural purposes. Arizona, for example, experienced its first major population boom in the late 19th century, but its population was roughly 50,000 in 1870, when West Virginia’s population was 440,000. It should therefore not be surprising that West Virginia’s rural population (~950K) is still higher than Arizona’s (~650K).
 
(As an aside, this also brings into sharper relief exactly just how destructive the Native American boarding schools were in the 1880s. Arizona’s NA population is 5% today, but census reconstructions and extrapolations indicate that it was likely as high as 80% in 1870, with the white minority trying to bend the majority to its will even before a wave of settlement onto land that wasn’t legally theirs.)
 
And to the extent that we consider the admission of most Western states between 1850-1900 as a guide for when population boomed in each of those states, that too is plausibly misleading. Nevada, for example, became a state in 1864, but at the time, it had barely 10,000 people. Statehood was conferred, through a push by Abraham Lincoln, in order to preserve a Republican Senate majority. (Many of the other empty states in the Interior West, particularly the 1889 admissions, follow the same pattern.) As of 2010, Nevada is the third most urbanized state in the country (barely behind California and New Jersey), as its rural areas are legitimately empty. (Esmeralda County, which is roughly 3/4 the size of Connecticut, has 783 people, which makes it six times less dense than Alaska.) Compare this to the least populous county in Ohio, Vinton County, which is roughly 1/10 the size of Esmeralda County but has about 13,000 people.
 
So where are the rural Americans? Mostly east, with roughly 10 million in the Northeast (there are more rural Americans in the Northeast than in the West, when excluding Texas), 16 million in the Midwest, and 27 million, or nearly half, in the South (incl. Texas and Oklahoma). Despite rural America being whiter than America as a whole, it is still roughly 8% Black (as compared to a 12% nationwide average), mostly (but not entirely) due to large populations in the Black Belt.
 
And if anything, that center is unlikely to move west. While some states, like South Carolina and Delaware, are urbanizing aggressively, others are not, with negative rates of urbanization in Alabama and Maine from 1990 to 2010 (a period of time in which the urban/suburban share of population rose from roughly 75% to 80%). Much of that empty land is not suited for settlement; it’s either protected land, covered in factory farms, or even if neither of those, it’s not near any existing infrastructure.
 
As the share of rural Americans continues to sink, as it has steadily been for 40 years, policy solutions will have to meet them where they are. And where they are is in the Eastern United States, and in the South in particular.
 
It’s worth adjusting our policy, and our expectations, accordingly.

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