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Urban, Rural Divide Growing Deeper Throughout US

The Uneven Recovery 2:48

Politically and culturally, America’s urban/rural divide is one of the nation’s most enduring splits. Last month we noted how different the economic realities are in rural and urban America, but dig deeper into the numbers and you begin to see how difficult it may be to bridge the gap between the two worlds.

The divides in education, age and opportunity are truly immense. And combining those three elements makes any real shift in rural America a very complicated task.

To get a sense of the divides look at four very different types of counties within the American Communities Project – the Big Cities, Urban Suburbs, both densely-packed population centers, and Rural Middle America and Working Class Country. You can see them on this map in pink, dark orange, royal blue and dark blue respectively.

To get a sense of how different those places are in terms of look and feel, consider the populations. There are only 153 counties in those big urban types, but they hold 140 million people. In those two rural types there are 936 counties, but they have a combined population of only 30 million.

But the gap between them is about a lot more than how spread-out their populations are.

The Urban Suburbs are the best-educated places in the country, 35% of the people who live there have at least a bachelor’s degree, according to Census data. The Big Cities are close behind with about 32% holding at least a bachelor’s.

The drop is sharp when one dips into rural places. In Rural Middle America, less than 20% have at least bachelor’s degree. In Working Class Country counties it is under 15%.

That closes a lot of doors to high-paying jobs in those rural communities.

Those rural counties are also substantially older than their urban counterparts. Gallup polling data from 2013 shows the average age of those rural counties is over 50. In the urban communities it is about 45.

When you are looking at average ages, five years is a big difference.

The data also show that about 20% of the population in those rural counties is over the age of 62. In the urban counties that figure is closer to 15%. And of course, retraining workers for new jobs is much harder than training and retraining younger workers.

So, in a broader sense, the economic challenges in rural America are structural and growing more difficult.

Cuts in public sector funding, which are inevitable in a time of deficits and budget constraints, arguably hit rural American much harder. The public sector – federal, state and local governments – invests in rural America because that is part of their mandate.

The private sector has no such mandate. Private companies see rural communities that are aging, with lower education levels and that are very spread out. There may not be much reason for those companies to invest in those places.

A lot of rural communities have already felt that pinch with the decline of manufacturing.

In 1980, about 19 million people work in manufacturing, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today only about 12 million work in that industry – and remember that happened as the United State population grew by 90 million people.

While much has been made of how those declines have rocked cities like Detroit and Cleveland and Gary, Indiana, the impacts have been just as hard in rural places that depended on small manufacturing. When a small town loses its mill or factory, the population-base makes it harder for a business from a growing segment of the economy, like a technology firm, to move in.

In a changing global economy that values education and special skills, finding a new direction for those rural economies is much harder. Getting urban and rural America on the same economic page is likely not going to be easy.