Rural America is sometimes viewed as a paragon of stability when, as the above accounting should make clear, change has been a constant. Tracing back decades, major studies of rural demography have made this point repeatedly. “Nonmetropolitan America is in a state of transition as unanticipated and dramatic changes sweep the countryside” (Alonso 1981, p. xv). “Rural and small town America has undergone fundamental economic and social change in recent years” (Fuguitt et al. 1989, p. 1). “Change rather than stability, most accurately characterizes rural America” (Kandel and Brown 2006). This special issue of PRPR echoes these themes. We have assembled a group of papers focused squarely on the changing demography of rural and small-town America in the early twenty-first century that address issues of broad interest to demographers—population growth and decline; fertility; mortality; migration; ethnoracial composition; and economic inequality—with special attention to changes across rural and urban space. The studies that comprise this issue are summarized below.
As a nation of immigrants, Americans are acutely aware of the impact that immigrants and their descendants have as they move to and within the United States. A demographic reality less widely recognized is that births now exceed deaths in many rural communities across the country. Daniel Lichter and Kenneth Johnson draw these issues together to ask whether immigration can save rural and small-town America. In “A Demographic Lifeline? Immigration and Hispanic Population Growth in Rural America,” they analyze county-level data on population change, natural increase, and net migration for all nonmetro and metro counties from 1990 to 2017. They find that Hispanic population growth has been common across nonmetro counties. In some rural areas, Hispanic gains have been sufficient to keep the area growing, in many others it has slowed but not reversed population declines. White depopulation is now widespread due to decades of rural out-migration and low rates of natural increase, especially in the post-2010 period. They also document heterogeneity across nonmetro America, identifying some places where the metaphor of a demographic lifeline from Hispanic growth holds. The provocative implication is that the attraction of immigrant groups might well be a viable rural development strategy.
Death is not supposed to occur in the prime of life, but it does, and it does so with greater relative frequency in nonmetro America. In “Trends in U.S. Working-Age Non-Hispanic White Mortality: Rural–Urban and Within-Rural Differences,” Shannon Monnat analyzes 30 years of data from the National Vital Statistics System to explore mortality trends among non-Hispanic whites aged 25–64 since 1990. Examining deaths from all causes and specific causes, Monnat documents and describes a rural mortality penalty that is real, complex, and worsening. Interestingly, some causes of death (e.g., heart disease) have been declining less in nonmetro than metro areas, while others (e.g., suicide) have been rising faster in the countryside, driving a widening nonmetro disadvantage. An alarming finding is that rural women have been especially plagued by rising mortality. Finally, Monnat’s analysis underscores the diversity of rural America by showing how the mortality trends differ across Census Divisions and county-level industrial structure.
In “Tracking Urbanization and Exurbs: Migration across the Rural–Urban Continuum, 1990–2016,” Shaun Golding and Richelle Winkler highlight migration trends across rural–urban space at the turn of the century. They propose a modified rural–urban continuum classification, the Rural–Urban Gradient (RUG), which holds metropolitan classification constant and distinguishes central city core counties in major metropolitan areas from their suburbs and exurbs. Using county-level migration data from the Internal Revenue Service, they use the RUG to make temporal and regional comparisons of net migration and migration efficiency. Their findings build on migration scholarship by showing that Americans continue to move away from large cities and remote rural areas toward suburban and exurban contexts, noting these trends represent a “sprawling pattern of urbanization, unfurling with particular speed in the American South and to a lesser extent, in the American West.”
While most integration and segregation studies are urbancentric—and focused on industrial centers in the Midwest and Northeast in particular—increasing racial and ethnic diversity over recent decades has characterized not only cities but also many suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas across the nation. In “Beyond the City: Exploring the Suburban and Rural Landscapes of Racial Residential Integration across the United States,” Ankit Rastogi and Katherine Curtis bring attention to the question of place-based ethnoracial integration. Their study identifies places across the rural–urban continuum that remained stably integrated between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Results show that the largest clusters of ethnoracial integration during this period were in U.S. suburbs, followed by rural places. Meanwhile, central cities stood as the least integrated places. Moreover, the findings demonstrate that the West is home to more integrated communities than are other regions of the country. These conclusions lead the authors to call for racial inequality scholars to “look outside the city and toward the West” to gain a more complete understanding of the demography of U.S. integration.
It is well recognized that the United States is a comparatively unequal society, and that inequality has been on the rise. The demography of inequality is the focus for Jaclyn Butler, Grace Wildermuth, Brian Thiede, and David Brown who explore “Population Change and Income Inequality in Rural America.” Analyzing several decades of county-level data (1980–2016), Butler et al. probe a simple but important question: What are the relative effects of population growth and decline on income inequality within nonmetro counties? With inequality of total household income measured using the Gini Index, they find population loss tends to increase income inequality while population growth mildly decreases it. The pattern is consistent across models and, in the case of population loss, prevails after controls for the sociodemographic and economic characteristics of counties. Echoing a common refrain across studies in this special issue that rural America is not monolithic, Butler et al. document and explore regional differences and find, notably, that the link between population loss and increasing inequality is especially apparent in the South.
Rural demographers know well that rurality is a matter of degree. For all its meaning and empirical value, the common use of nonmetro counties as representing rural America comes with important limitations and caveats. Over the years, researchers have responded in different ways to introduce needed nuance. In “Change in U.S. Small Town Community Capitals, 1980–2010,” Lori Hunter, Catherine Talbot, Dylan Connor, Miriam Counterman, Johannes Uhl, Myron Gutmann, Stefan Leyk, and Taylor Jaworski take a purposely restrictive definition of rural by focusing on “tiny towns,” places with populations of less than 2500 located within nonmetro counties that are completely rural according to ERS. This place-based analysis draws on a variety of data sources to describe sociodemographic change in tiny towns from 1980 to 2010, with attention paid to human capital, natural capital, and other assets suggested by the community capitals framework. Hunter et al. find that tiny towns lost population overall, although this was restricted to those in counties not adjacent to a metro area. They also report that tiny towns, particularly those in nonadjacent counties, are marked by low levels of community capital, a disadvantage that remains consistent over time. Their analysis underscores the policy importance of keeping the nation’s most rural places in mind.
Lastly, research has long shown poverty rates to be higher in rural than urban areas using the official federal poverty measure (OPM). However, studies based on the newer Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) have challenged this view of rural–urban economic hardship. In “Why is Poverty Higher in Rural America according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure? An Investigation of the Geographic Adjustment,” José Pacas and David Rothwell dig into these disparate findings. They show that the different stories produced by the two measures can be largely attributed to the SPM’s geographic adjustment for median rent, and that over a third of the SPM’s drop in nonmetro areas nationally is driven by the rent adjustment in just six states alone. They conclude that while the SPM is viewed by many as a better measure of poverty than the traditional OPM, researchers should be cognizant of the considerable implications of the housing cost modification for understanding poverty across the rural–urban continuum.