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What is Considered Rural America?

Posted by UC Social on December 20, 2023

Around 60 million people or one in five Americans live in what is considered rural America.

The term “rural” has many meanings and is often left up to interpretation. Most people associate country living with farms, pastures, and beautiful rolling hills. Well, that is not necessarily what rural America consists of.

Rural vs. Urban

The US Census Bureau considers rural areas to be any areas that are not described as urban. The more defining threshold is the population which must fall below 50,000 people or less in order for an area to be considered rural. There are 780 cities in America that have a population of 50,000 people or more and they account for 63% US population. That leaves the other 38,435 cities, towns, and other “incorporated places” to be placed in the rural category. About 76% of the approximately 19,500 incorporated places had fewer than 5,000 people. Of those, almost 42% had fewer than 500 people. 

There are two types of urban areas described by the US Census Bureau. The first one is urbanized areas consisting of 50,000 people or more. The second one is urbanized clusters that contain 2,500 people but fewer than 50,000 residents. Both urbanized areas and urban clusters are delineated primarily on the basis of population density.

Employment and Poverty

The sector that accounts for nearly 17 percent of employment in highly rural and remote areas is agriculture.  Approximately 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product is generated in nonmetropolitan counties and rural areas constitute 97% of land mass.

The poverty rate for adults living in rural areas is 16.4% compared to urban areas at 12.9%. For children, the poverty rate in rural places is estimated at 22.8%, more than five points higher than in urban places. 26.9% of adults are unemployed in rural areas which directly contributes to much higher poverty rates. Rural poverty also stems from limited access to markets, education, quality infrastructure, employment opportunities, health, and financial products. 

The US consists of many states where 50% or more of the population is considered rural. These states include Vermont (65%), Maine (61%), West Virginia (55%), and Mississippi (54%).  64% of the total rural population lives east of the Mississippi River and nearly half of all people living in rural areas reside in the Southern region of the United States (approx.28 million people.) California has the lowest proportion of population living in rural areas which ranks at about 5%.

Although a large portion of the population lives in rural areas, about  47% of the United States is still considered uninhabited.

The most rural place in America is Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska. This territory covers 145,505 square miles which is about the size the state of Montana. This very large territory has a population of 5,588 people and at a density of 0.0449 inhabitants per square mile, it is the least densely populated area in the entire US.

The Rural Migration

During the first year of the pandemic, over 325,000 Americans moved from urban areas to rural counties. The majority of the people who moved to these rural areas settled in the southern portion of the country. This large movement of people across the country coined the name “The Rural Migration”.  

Throughout history, rural America has been decreasing in population, that is until the pandemic. During that time the rural population increased by 0.13%. In 2021, 244,000 people moved into rural areas, while 167,000 moved out. 

Rural America has been making a very well-deserved comeback in the past few years. Considering that the majority of US cities, towns, and other “incorporated places” are rural, it’s very much an understated portion of the United States. Rural America is more than farms and pastures, it’s a place where more retirees immigrate and young people choose a more healthy lifestyle.

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