These are the criteria used by the authors of the report to differentiate between urban and rural counties. (Source: “Is Rural America Really Doing So Badly? Lessons from the Transformation of Rural Counties”)

Research by Headwaters Economics shows we’ve been measuring rural growth wrong. As rural counties add population, they can grow out of their rural category and take their economic growth with them.

“Rural America is reported as declining in part because we no longer count as Rural those counties that grew into a Metro classification. We are measuring those counties that stay Rural which, by definition, have not grown,” stated the report.

The research showed that 48% of counties that were classified as rural in 1970 grew into metropolitan counties by 2018. But the ones that remained rural had their share of success as well. For example, the average poverty rate in rural counties overall dropped 26% between 1970 and 2018. 

The team from Bozeman, Montana found commonalities among counties that switched from rural to urban and among those that remained rural. 

While the majority of “switcher” counties are located close to existing cities, they are also more likely to have diversified economies and be home to a university. 

(Source: “Is Rural America Really Doing So Badly? Lessons from the Transformation of Rural Counties”)

Those that remained rural are far from homogenous, but the report stated that “they often have some economic specialization or dependence. Counties that stayed Rural and lost population tended to depend on farming, mining, or oil and gas. Counties that stayed Rural and gained population (though not enough to switch to Urban) tended to be recreation-dependent and/or retirement destinations.”

The way rural counties are classified and reclassified contributes to a skewed image of “struggling rural America.” Policy makers should consider this as they look for ways to help rural counties succeed.

The report identified significant, regional factors that played a part in counties’ transition. Counties in the South and West that switched from rural to urban often did that as a result of becoming a retirement destination. 

“In Florida, 18 of the 28 counties that switched from Rural to Urban are retirement destinations. In Sumter County, east of Orlando, population grew by 755% between 1970 and 2018. It switched to Urban in 2000,” stated the report. 

Northeast and West of the country saw 30% and 31% of their “switchers” respectively were found to be recreation dependent economies, while 25% of reclassified counties in the West were found to rely on government jobs. 

Research pointed out that even within the “stayers” category, variations in population – the primary measure by which metropolitan status is decided – have been extremely varied. Some counties registered declines of as much as 80%, while others increased their populations by almost 700% between 1970 and 2018.

But 52% of all rural counties in 1970 were still rural in in 2018. The economic dependence on natural resources or farming was a common characteristic of rural counties with the highest population loss (8 out of 10). The ones that were still rural in 2018but experienced population growth were primarily recreation and retirement destinations. 

(Source: “Is Rural America Really Doing So Badly? Lessons from the Transformation of Rural Counties”)

And as these populations grew, a host of issues, from a rise in housing costs to ecological impacts that are not easily captured by the data came along. 

But socio-economic factors (poverty, college attainment, average earnings per job, and unemployment) analyzed by the researchers for “switchers” and “stayers” show that the growth and development of rural counties that could count as a marker of progress can be hidden by their reclassification as urban. 

“Across the five socioeconomic indicators…counties that switched from Rural to Urban on average perform between the always-Urban counties and the counties that stayed Rural, such as with changes in population, poverty rate, and changes in unemployment rate. On two important indicators—changes in college attainment rates and changes in earnings per job—they perform similarly to their Rural counterparts,” stated the report. 

(Source: “Is Rural America Really Doing So Badly? Lessons from the Transformation of Rural Counties”)

“Across the United States, Rural counties account for 51% of the land area and 6% of the population. Consequently, rural voters play an outsized role in the electoral college and U.S. Senate,” said the report.

According to the research, the fact that rural America remains such varied and complex place, puts the burden of understanding and responsibility for tailored policies on the future administration.

“It is critical that those shaping policy for the next four years understand the heterogeneity of rural communities’ experiences and needs.”