Rural America Prospers

Hoard's Dairyman: 

Rural America Prospers

Date: 
Tue, 01/12/2010

The notion that living in rural America yields a less prosperous life has been disproven. Of course, those of us living in rural America aren't surprised by this. We love where we live (most of us.) A recent study by the University of Illinois actually found that much of rural America is prosperous, particularly in the Midwest and Plains regions. In order to define prosperity, they analyzed unemployment rates, poverty rates, high school drop-out rates, and housing conditions. The result was that one in five rural communities nationwide is prosperous. In each of those aspects of prosperity, rural communities did better than the nation as a whole. Counties in America's heartland did the best — one-half of rural counties were considered prosperous. In the Southeast and Southwest, fewer than one in twenty counties were considered prosperous.

The research found that prosperous rural counties have more off-farm jobs, more educated populations, and less income inequality than other rural counties. Geographic factors like climate, topography, distances to cities and airports, and interstate highways are unimportant in distinguishing prosperous counties from others. You can see the graph below to find out where these prosperous counties are. The darkest shade of orange represents the most prosperous. Blackened areas are urban.

They also found that prosperity and growth are two different things. The prosperous counties averaged 2 percent growth, while the worst-off counties averaged 11 percent growth and had much lower average incomes. There was some disappointing news, however. Of 260 counties where African Americans or American Indians make up 10 percent or more of the population, only six were considered prosperous.

So why do some areas prosper and others not? One graduate student, Mallory Rahe, dug deeper into two prosperous communities. "She returned with impressive stories that link local churches, a shared ethnic identity, small colleges, locally owned manufacturing, innovative farmers, and extraordinary cooperation and civic engagement to job creation, education, and housing," said University of Illinois economist and coauthor Andrew Isserman.