Economist Andrew Isserman listed four measures of prosperity: good housing, jobs, low poverty and education. This map shows how many of these measures are met by each county. The darker the color, the more prosperous the county.
When most of us discuss successful rural communities we talk about growth — more people, more houses, higher incomes. More bodies and more stuff. Growth equals success in this equation — and the rural counties that we all try to emulate have booming populations and lots of housing starts. Rural communities that aren’t growing are, by this definition, failures — and, with this perspective, failure stretches across much of the rural United States
Andrew Isserman decided to use another measure for rural success. Instead of growth, Isserman, an economist at the University of Illinois, looked for which rural counties were prosperous. And by studying prosperity instead, he and research colleagues Edward Feser and Drake Warren found that the prosperous places in rural America weren’t the kinds of communities usually thought of as successful.
Prosperous counties, according to Isserman, graduate their kids from high school. People work in prosperous counties, and unemployment rates are low. There’s less poverty in prosperous counties, and the housing people live in is both affordable and in good repair.
Notice, Isserman didn’t measure either growth or income. “Growth and prosperity are not the same,” Isserman wrote, even though most economic development efforts are measured by their ability to add population. Nor is income a good measure of prosperity, since the cost of living varies so widely from place to place. (For more on why the researchers used poverty rates in their index but not income, see page 7 of the study.)
Isserman then set off to find those rural places that met his four-part test of prosperity: low drop-out rates; lots of jobs; low poverty rates; good and affordable housing.
The economist found 400 rural counties that scored better on all four of these measures of prosperity than the nation as a whole. It was true that the closer counties got to metro areas, the more prosperous they became. So Isserman narrowed his search to the 1,371 counties that were truly rural. (Such counties have “90% of their population in rural areas or have no urban area with a population of 10,000 or more, as well as a population density fewer than 500 people per square mile” p. 5.)
Poverty rates were the most difficult of Isserman’s prosperity hurdles for rural counties to get over. Housing was the easiest. Isserman found that 289 of the 1,371 strictly rural counties were more prosperous than the national average. (A full list of the counties can be found here. )
WHAT MATTERED LEAST
These 289 prosperous rural counties didn’t have giant four-lanes running through them. Or, at least, Isserman found this group of counties had no more highway access than the rest of rural America. Nor were they closer to direct airline service.
The prosperous rural counties were not tourist or retirement areas. “Relatively few prosperous counties are recreation counties,” Isserman wrote. Nor were these counties rich in mountains, lakes or vistas. There were a lot of prosperous counties in the Great Plains, after all, places with billard table landscapes and stock tanks rather than beaches.
This was all good news, as far as Isserman was concerned. Prosperity wasn’t a function of things rural communities have little control over — things like the routing of highways or the location of mountain ranges, lakes, ski slopes or oceans.
“Geography is not destiny,” according to Isserman.
WHAT MATTERED MOST
Jobs made a difference. “The prosperous counties have a more vigorous private sector, with more jobs per capita” and fewer transfer payments, Isserman wrote. Surprisingly, prosperous counties had more jobs in branch manufacturing plants, “footloose” plants that could locate in any community, rather than “resource based, value added” manufacturing like timber mills or mining. Prosperous rural communities have private sector jobs, not government jobs.
Prosperous counties have more farms — more family farms, more farm employment and, consequently, more government subsidy payments.
Mostly, “prosperous rural counties keep their kids in school,” Isserman wrote. Adults in prosperous places have more education than do adults in the nation as a whole, and so do their kids. In prosperous rural counties, 63 percent of young adult women (age 24-34) have some college, compared to 50 percent in the rest of rural America. And 53 percent of young men have some college, compared to 39 percent in all other rural counties.
Prosperous rural places have more places for people to meet (restaurants, bowling lanes, country clubs) and more people attend churches that are engaged in their communities.
Prosperous places aren’t fast-growing. As a matter of fact, they grow more slowly than do communities on average.
And prosperous places are homogenous — especially racially. Very few racially diverse rural counties are also prosperous. Isserman wrote:
The most prosperous rural county with a sizeable American Indian population is Moody County, South Dakota. This was a pow wow in July of this year in Flandreau.
Photo: Guardian Mode
“Among the 260 rural non-core counties whose black residents constitute 10% or more of their populations, only six are prosperous. Only one of the 98 counties is prosperous where American Indians are 10% or more of the population. Similarly, among the 181 rural non-core counties in which Hispanics are 10% or more of the population, only 17 are prosperous. White residents are
at least 90% of the population in all but 14 of the 289 prosperous rural non-core counties.”
The most important social variable of them all is education, Isserman wrote. The most important economic variable was income distribution. In prosperous counties more people earn average incomes and fewer people make either a whole lot or very little.
Clearly the most disturbing trend is the continuing relationship between poverty and race. Only one rural county with a concentration of American Indians was prosperous, and that is Moody County, South Dakota. There were only nine prosperous rural counties with more than 10,000 people and a concentration of minority residents. They are King George, Madison, and Northumberland, Virginia; Giles, Tennessee; Simpson, Kentucky; Fayette and Gillespie, Texas; Watonwan, Minnesota; and Delta, Colorado.
Rural development can’t be colorblind, Isserman says. Policy makers can’t pretend that race doesn’t matter. Races matter quite a bit.
(Place matters, too, Isserman found. The Great Plains had the greatest number of prosperous counties.)
Finally, where are the MOST prosperous places? Isserman tells us: “Plymouth, Sioux, and Carroll counties in Iowa; Putnam, Wyandot, and Paulding in Ohio; and Hancock in Illinois have the highest prosperity index scores among all rural non-core counties with more than 20,000 residents; each beats the nation by more than 25 percentage points, and Plymouth, Putnam, and Sioux do so by 32 percentage points.”
What he wants to find out next, of course, is why. Why are these places prosperous while others aren’t?