In her book The Overlooked Americans, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett tries to explain why rural America isn’t doing as badly as we think it is, but her data doesn’t sell the story of rural prosperity the way she hoped it would. 

Currid-Halkett’s 2023 book grew out of her response to the media portrayal of rural Americans after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. She said the press made rural people look like a homogenous voting bloc — angry, isolated, and disenfranchised. But those stories didn’t line up with her own experience. 

Currid-Halkett is a professor at the University of Southern California, where she holds the James Irvine Chair of Urban and Regional Planning. But she didn’t always live in the big city. Currid-Halkett grew up in rural Danville, Pennsylvania, a place that represents “America’s once affordable good-life.” Danville isn’t wealthy, but neither is it poor. 

“People are content, even happy,” she wrote of her hometown. “[They] don’t seem particularly angry at the world, as the media has characterized rural folks.”

Danville residents didn’t fit the narrative of rural rage espoused by people like Paul Krugman who say that rural people support far-right populist candidates because they resent liberal elites and blame them for their hardships.

Currid-Halkett wrote The Overlooked Americans in part to challenge that narrative. She argues that rural and urban people are not that different and that mainstream depictions of our political divisions only obscure our similarities.

In a chapter named, “You’d Be Surprised How Well We Are Doing,” Currid-Halkett tries to show that the notion of an economically struggling rural America is a myth. Extreme poverty exists in rural places, but it’s in our nation’s largest cities as well, she says. And claiming that economics alone caused Trump’s popularity in rural America is simplistic to the point of being misleading. 

Currid-Halkett cements her argument with statistics in this chapter. Despite the pages of data, graphs, and maps that compare rural to urban, I was unconvinced that rural America is doing no worse than the rest of the country economically. 

What is Rural?

When making comparisons between urban and rural places, the first task is to define our terms. Rural is notoriously hard to define, and researchers can use a variety of different definitions at many different geographic scales from the census tract all the way up to counties. 

One of the most commonly used definitions – and the system that Currid-Halkett’s county-level analyses are based on – comes from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which defines rural at the county level. In the OMB classification system has two factors. First, a county is metropolitan if there is a city in the county of 50,000 or more people. Second, surrounding counties that are strongly connected to that county through economic activity like commuting patterns are also considered metropolitan.

Within the nonmetropolitan category of county, there’s subset of counties called micropolitan. These are counties that are not in a metro and that have a city of 10,000 to 49,999 people. Micropolitan counties are sort of in-between the metropolitan and nonmetropolitan categories and are generally synonymous with small towns and cities. Micropolitan counties are, by definition, nonmetropolitan. So when researchers use nonmetropolitan areas as a surrogate definition for rural, micropolitan counties are rural. Most of the Daily Yonder’s county-level analysis uses the OMB definition of metro/nonmetro and includes micropolitan counties in its rural classification.

But Currid-Halkett leaves these 665 micropolitan counties out of her analysis. She wrote that micropolitan counties might represent areas of social or economic transition, and therefore “[they] differ conceptually from the notions of urban and rural discussed in this book.” Her analysis  includes the 1,164 counties classified as metropolitan and the 1,275 counties classified as nonmetropolitan in the OMB’s classification system. In my analysis of the DCI data, including the graphs presented in this article, I used Currid-Halkett’s definition of rural for the sake of consistency.

Rural America Is More Economically Distressed Than Urban America

Currid-Halkett repeatedly condemns the “conventional wisdom” that insists on a stereotype of a struggling rural America. And it is wrong to think of rural America as any one thing, including economically distressed. But that conventional wisdom about rural economics is not a personal prejudice. It’s a conclusion based on data. 

A 2021 report from the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), a policy and research organization, said that “rural places lag behind non-rural places on nearly every measure of prosperity from poverty rates to labor force participation.” 

EIG created a comprehensive index to measure the economic distress of every county and Zip code in the United States. It’s called the Distressed Communities Index (DCI), and it ranks counties and Zip codes into one of five quintiles (five tiers) ranging from 1) Prosperous to 5) Distressed. The DCI index considers seven factors based on data from the Census and the American Community Survey.  These are poverty, education, housing vacancy, incomes, median income ratio, job growth, and business openings. 

What Does the DCI Measure?

The DCI includes the following seven economic indicators in its index:

  • Education – Percent of the population over 25 years old without a high school diploma
  • Housing Vacancy – Percent of housing that is habitable, but unoccupied. This measure excludes seasonal properties 
  • Employment – Percent of adults between the ages of 25-54 who are not employed
  • Poverty – Percent of households living under the poverty line
  • Median Income Ratio – The median income ratio is the median household income of a county, divided by the metro area median income (if the county is metropolitan) or the state median income (if the county is nonmetropoiltan). If the median household income is lower in a rural county than it is in the rest of the state, then the median income ratio will be lower than 1. If the income ratio is above one, then the median income of households in that county is higher than it is in the rest of the state. A ratio of one indicates that the median household income of the county is the same as the state median. The income ratio compares every county to its peers, which gives a more accurate portrayal of economic well being.
  • Job Growth – Percent change in jobs from 2016 to 2020
  • Business Growth – Percent change in number of businesses from 2016 to 2020

The DCI captures more in one summary statistic than Currid-Halkett’s individual data points, therefore letting us capture a succinct rural / urban comparison while also including multiple indicators of economic well being. The comparison does not make rural America look good.

Twenty-eight percent of rural counties are distressed, compared to only 7% of metropolitan counties. And only 9% of rural counties are prosperous, while 38% of metropolitan counties are prosperous. (Some of this difference is a result of making the unit of analysis the county, which can hide pockets of urban poverty in overall county statistics. But this methodological flaw doesn’t account for the dramatic difference between rural and urban economic averages.)

Almost half of all rural Southern counties are distressed, compared to 38% in the Mid Atlantic and about a third of rural counties in the Southwest. 

In every region of the United States, (except for New England, where there are no distressed counties), rural communities are more distressed than their urban counterparts. 

Over 5.5 million rural people live in a distressed county -- that’s almost a third of the total rural population. Meanwhile, only 14% of metropolitan residents live in a distressed county. And 25% of rural people live in the at-risk tier, compared to just 5% of urban people. 

Because the South is struggling socioeconomically even in metropolitan areas, lumping Southern counties in with the rest of rural America can actually make rural look like it’s doing worse than it really is, according to Currid-Halkett.

But the numbers didn’t look much better even when I excluded Southern counties from the comparison. Excluding the South, over a third of metropolitan residents live in a prosperous county, compared to only 7% of rural residents. And 11% of rural residents outside the South live in a distressed county, compared to less than 1% of urban residents.

The distressed-counties index is a convenient tool, but it’s far from the only measurement of economic difficulty. When I ran the numbers on other metrics like long term and extreme poverty, life expectancy, and suicide rates, I found that rural still fares significantly worse than urban, even when I accounted for how the South might skew that comparison. And that’s not even accounting for the ways that the lack of access to public transportation, high-speed internet and healthcare providers in rural areas make poverty even more challenging. You can thank me later for sparing you those details here.

Rural America is Not All the Same

Currid-Halkett’s larger argument – that rural America is not homogenous – stands. Even though rural places are, in the aggregate, doing worse economically than their urban peers, that doesn’t mean it’s true everywhere. Some rural communities are poor and without jobs, but many are also centers of health and opportunity. The same can be said of urban places. 

One example of rural prosperity is Putnam County, Ohio, a community of about 34,000 residents. The economy is largely dependent on manufacturing in Putnam, where the median income is $73,000, 52% higher than the rural median household income. Rural counties with economies dependent on the recreation industry also tend to fare better than the rest of their rural peers, according to some of my previous analysis.

But an honest conversation about how to get past the tropes of rural despair needs to start with a more realistic analysis of the economic challenges rural America faces.

I found Currid-Halkett’s book thoughtful, detailed, and thorough. And I appreciate her attempt to elevate the discourse about who lives in rural America and what they need. But changing that conversation is not going to happen in any meaningful way by underplaying the blatant inequalities between rural and urban. If you have to dedicate a 49 page chapter to the whole idea that not all rural places are wastelands, that’s perhaps a sign of how eroded the conversation has become. 

Currid-Halkett’s willingness to jump into that conversation makes her a friend of rural America, and for that, we can all be thankful.

Sarah Melotte is a Daily Yonder staff writer who focuses on data reporting.

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