The new typology sorts rural census tracts, or subdivisions of counties, into seven "peer groups," based on a range of economic, social, environmental, and financial characteristics. (Graphic courtesy of the Urban Institute)

Corrected

Most definitions of rural America start with what communities aren’t – and that’s urban. A new typology developed attempts to define rural communities by what they are – diverse, complicated, and full of local assets.

The new system comes from the Urban Institute, a nonprofit policy research organization whose focus includes economic and social improvement in both urban and rural areas.

The new typology defines different groups of rural communities based on a wide range of physical, financial, environmental, and social assets. The hope is that the assets-based analysis will guide how public and private institutions can invest most effectively in rural communities.

“Rural areas are frequently compared to urban ones, fueling stereotypes about what ‘typical’ rural characteristics are in terms of race, economies, politics, land use, and other assumptions,” said Corianne Scally, the Urban Institute’s lead researcher on the project. “Our typology compares rural areas to one another and leaves out urban ones. This allows diverse rural realities to stand out more clearly.”

Instead of starting with a large and amorphous collection of nonmetro counties, the Urban Institute’s new typology starts with U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural-Urban Commuting Area (RUCA) codes for census tracts, geographical units used by the Census Bureau that subdivide counties into smaller areas. This means census tracts in both metro and nonmetro counties are included as long as their RUCA codes are “rural”: micropolitan, small town, or isolated rural. For each tract, Scally and her team assign one of seven groupings, which are based on local assets. (If you want to look deeper into the theory, here’s a paper on the Community Capitals Framework, which underlies the Urban Institute system.)

We interviewed Scally via email to learn more about the typology and how she envisions its use in the future.

The dashboard for the typology contains detailed information on criteria used to categorize the seven peer groups in the system. This image shows two of the six criteria used in the “financial capital” list. The six other types of capital are built, cultural, financial, human, natural, political, and social. Click to enlarge.

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Daily Yonder: Of the many different definitions or proxies for rural, most are built on what rural areas lack. Primarily rural areas are defined as places that lack urban settlement. You’ve made a system based rural communities’ assets. Why does this matter?

Corianne Scally: Rural areas are frequently compared to urban ones, fueling stereotypes about what “typical” rural characteristics are in terms of race, economies, politics, land use, and other assumptions. Our typology compares rural areas to one another and leaves out urban ones. This allows diverse rural realities to stand out more clearly.

Rural areas are also often categorized in ways that focus on deficiencies. While descriptions around “persistent poverty” or “deep disadvantage” may be true for some rural places, they don’t lead with community strengths or elevate opportunities for growth. In contrast, our typology provides a starting point to help investors, policymakers, and practitioners identify groups of rural places with similar assets where a series of strategic investments, technical assistance, and capacity-building supports could make a difference. The accompanying dashboard also lets users dig deep on every single inhabited rural census tract in the US. It shows each of the 50 asset-based measures we used to develop the typology and how each census tract scores compares to its peer group and the rural average. From natural resources to physical infrastructure to key public and community institutions to financial and physical health and racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity, users can explore a broad set of rural assets all in one place.

We hope the typology and dashboard highlight rural diversities, profile a broad range of rural assets, and provide actionable local data that those who care about rural prosperity will use to leverage strengths and build capacity through investments and other supports.

Daily Yonder. The other rural typologies I know like USDA ERS Rural Urban Continuum Codes or ERS economic types are used as the framework for further analysis and research. With the Rural Peer Groups, it seems more like the typology IS the analysis. Do you think that’s true?

Scally: The typology is a statistical analysis of the asset-based measures that went into constructing it, resulting in seven peer groups. It’s loosely built on the Community Capitals Framework that’s been used by rural researchers and practitioners for years to help local rural communities identify their strengths and areas for growth. So, to some extent, we are testing an existing, well-respected rural framework to see how it works at a national scale with data at the census-tract level.

Our primary purpose for the typology and dashboard is to inspire strategic, positive action that builds on rural assets. On the other hand, we see plenty of opportunity to use (and improve) the typology for future analysis and research. Testing how useful the peer groups are for understanding rural realities is important. We’re planning eventual case studies on towns that fall within different peer groups to explore what the typology captures well and what it currently misses that could be included in a future update. There may also be interest in whether peer groups can predict other outcomes for rural communities, such as how they are affected by economic recessions or extreme climate events, although this wasn’t our original purpose. 

There are certainly limitations to the typology. The Community Capitals Framework is difficult to operationalize with existing available national data, and not everyone will agree with what we and our project partners and advisors determined to be “assets”. Even if we could perfectly capture the spirit of the framework nationally with numbers, they don’t provide the needed nuanced context of local histories and capacities someone would need to make well-informed decisions on investments and supports.

Two of the 12 indicators that comprise the human capital measurement. Click to enlarge.

Daily Yonder: How do you see the typology being used? Is it for local leaders, policy makers, researchers, or what? What exactly do you hope will happen as a result of your new typology?

Scally: Our hope is for this to be a useful tool that highlights key assets across rural America and motivates new investment and capacity-building. For practitioners, the peer groups can help them connect to other similar rural areas that may be outside their county or even state to win national attention on shared strengths or challenges. They might also exchange information with stakeholders across their peer group on strategies that have (and have not) worked best to foster asset-based growth and opportunity. Within their regions, they can leverage the dashboard data on each individual census tract to help tell the stories about the towns and communities they serve and invite positive investments and supports that build on local strengths or underappreciated assets. 

For federal policymakers and other investors in rural places, the typology and dashboard can provide a compass for making more equitable rural investments. For example, we find that more federal investments, on average, have gone to the Centers of Wealth and Health peer group in recent years compared to all other peer groups. Peer groups also help draw attention to areas that may have underappreciated assets, for example, those two peer groups labeled as “energy rich” where extractive industries may have caused harm and overshadowed other local assets key to community growth. We also provide some additional data points for each census tract on institutional contexts that might be helpful for investors to know, including the types of local or regional governments, tribal lands, and possible partners such as chambers of commerce or United Way affiliates.

Daily Yonder: You’ve chosen to use census tracts as the basic unit of analysis for your typology. That gives you a much more granular analysis of the characteristics of these rural places. But most of the routine, real-time data we get about economic and social issues is generated at the county level, not the census tract. What is the advantage of using census tracts as the basic unit of analysis? Is there a trade off between using census tract or county-level units of analysis?

Scally: Most real-time rural data come out at the county level due to data constraints and privacy concerns. Public and private data owners want to make sure the information they release is as accurate as possible while protecting the privacy of those who are reflected in the data, be they individuals or businesses.

Meanwhile, we know that county level data can fall short in describing rural realities. Both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties (usually considered “rural” for county-level analyses) can include multiple towns and small communities that may have different assets and strengths than what overall county data might show. Using census tract-level data helps show these different realities a bit more clearly. There was no guarantee that our approach would be useful but the typology reveals quite a few counties containing census tracts that fall into multiple peer groups. Some of the most interesting juxtapositions include a “Centers of Wealth and Health” tract that ranks best on many measures surrounded by census tracts in the “Diverse, Institution-Rich Hubs” peer group that ranks poorly on those same measures. These finer-grained data can be useful to those working to address historic rural inequities. As only one snapshot in time, however, the typology and dashboard should be used alongside local knowledge and other available, more real-time data.

Scally will be one of the speakers at an Urban Institute online event, “What Does It Take to Transform Persistent Rural Poverty into Opportunity?” on Wednesday, October 13, 2021. Other speakers are Suzanne Anarde, chief executive officer, Rural Community Assistance Corporation; Bill Bynum, chief executive officer, HOPE; Chrystel Cornelius, president and CEO, Oweesta Corporation; Jim King, president and chief executive officer, Fahe; Nick Mitchell-Bennett, executive director, cdcb; Ines Polonius, chief executive officer, Communities Unlimited; and Brett Theodos, senior fellow, Urban Institute.

CORRECTION: The areas included in the rural typology are based on Rural-Urban Commuting Area (RUCA) codes, a system devised by the Economic Research Service of USDA that goes to the census tract level. An earlier version of this story said the typology covered “nonmetropolitan” counties, as defined by the federal Office of Management and Budget. This was incorrect. We’re sorry for the error.