Academic journal article Generations

Rural America by the Numbers

Academic journal article Generations

Rural America by the Numbers

Article excerpt

A demographic snapshot, past and present, of who resides in rural America, and what has caused population shifts over time.

The story of the population of the United States is one of transformation. One of the duties of the federal government, specified in the U.S. Constitution, is to perform a decennial Census, which must count every person in the country. The Census of 1800 showed that only 6.1 percent of the population of the United States was urban (U.S. Census Bureau, 1993). The U.S. population was overwhelmingly rural at that time and, though the rural proportion of the population declined through the nineteenth century, the majority of the population was still rural until the early decades of the twentieth century.

In 1920, for the first time, the majority of the U.S. population lived in urban areas and, since then, the urban majority has increased, reaching a new high in 2010 when it made up more than 80 percent of the total population. While the rural population as a percentage of the total has declined, the number of people living in America's rural areas has remained fairly stable over the past thirty years, with each Census showing close to 60 million people living in rural areas (see Figure 1 on page 10).

It is important to distinguish the difference between the way the Census Bureau designates rural areas and the Office of Management and Budget's designation of Metropolitan Statistical Areas. The Census Bureau does not define what is rural. "The U.S. Census Bureau defines rural as what is not urban- that is, after defining individual urban areas, rural is what is left" (Ratcliffe et al., 2016).

Late in the nineteenth century, the Census Bureau defined urban areas as "incorporated cities and towns with at least 2,500 people . . . " (Ratcliffe et al., 2016). The Census still uses places of at least 2,500 people to designate urban areas, but it no longer defines the border of the urban area as the end of the incorporated place. Instead, it uses "a definition based on population density and other measures of dense development when identifying urban territory. The definition seeks to draw the boundary around an urban area's 'footprint' to include its developed territory" (Ratcliffe et al., 2016). This recognizes the change in settlement patterns that became evident in the post-World War II era with the development of suburbs, which frequently were not part of an incorporated area.

Because the Census designation of urban areas does not follow administrative borders such as city or county lines, statistical data often are not available for rural or urban areas. This problem does not exist for Metropolitan Statistical Areas (Metro), which are made up of whole counties and designated by the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB), based on economic integration of surrounding counties and measured by the commuting patterns of the working population. Both economic and demographic data are frequently collected and analyzed at a county level.

Metro areas must contain a Census-designated urbanized area of at least 50,000 people. For Census-designated urban areas of 10,000 to 49,999 people, OMB calls them Micropolitan Statistical Areas (Micro), which also are made up of whole-county areas. All other counties in the United States that do not fall into either category are "Non-core" counties. The Micro and Noncore counties together make up the majority of counties and land area of the United States and are considered Non-metro, or "rural counties." The Metro population of the country and the number of counties designated as Metro have grown to include about a third of all counties and, after the 2010 Census, about 85 percent of the total population. Changes in a county's Metro status can be attributed to either population growth or to changes in commuting patterns, which draw the county's working population into the Core Urbanized Area.

Statistical data included below will specify whether it is based on the Census rural designations or OMB's Metro designations. …

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