According to the United States’ original 1950 urban classifications, rural America is crushing it. It’s home to about as many people as urban America, and it’s growing faster. So why do headlines and statistics paint rural areas as perpetually in decline?
Because the contest between rural and urban America is rigged. Official definitions are regularly updated in such a way that rural counties are continually losing their most successful places to urbanization. When a rural county grows, it transmutes into an urban one.
In a way, rural areas serve as urban America’s farm team: All their most promising prospects get called up to the big leagues, leaving the low-density margins populated by an ever-shrinking pool of those who couldn’t qualify.
Imagine how unfair a sport would seem if one team automatically drafted the other’s best players the moment they showed any promise. That’s essentially what happens when we measure rural areas as whatever’s left over after anywhere that hits a certain population level is considered metropolitan. It distorts how we see rural America. It skews our view of everything from presidential politics to suicide to deaths caused by alcohol.
Officially, the years since 2010 have marked a turning point for rural counties. For the first time, they have lost population. Their share of the U.S. population hit an all-time low of 14 percent. But those startling statistics are due entirely to changes in county definitions, according to a paper presented to the Rural Sociological Society by Ken Johnson of the University of New Hampshire, Daniel Lichter of Cornell University and John Cromartie of the Agriculture Department.