Demographer Ken Johnson.

No one would ever claim there’s no difference between Chicago and New York City, or that Los Angeles and Philadelphia are identical.

Similarly, there’s no way to portray a single rural America, says demographer Kenneth Johnson of the University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy. Each part of the countryside has its own special characteristics.

“There are actually many rural Americas,” Johnson said.  “You can’t paint them all with one brush, just like no one would ever try to represent all of urban America with one … image.”

Johnson, who is also a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, will have more opportunity in the coming year to explore subtle differences among rural communities, thanks to a fellowship from the Carnegie Corp. The award comes with a $200,000 prize.

Johnson said he’s pleased with the fellowship, not just because it will support his work but because it shows a major U.S. funder finds rural research important.

“I think it’s very good that Carnegie recognized the importance of committing some of their resources to looking at rural demographic trends and rural areas,” he said.

Johnson said his research will focus on the impacts of the Great Recession and immigration on rural communities.

We spoke with Johnson to learn more about his work and what he sees in store for America’s diverse rural communities.


Daily Yonder: Tell us what you hope to look into over the course of your fellowship.

Johnson: There are two demographic phenomena in rural America that I’m really interested in. One of them is … the coming of Hispanics to rural America. Of course, there are parts of rural America where Hispanics have lived for a long time, for example, in the Southwest. But they are spread from those areas into other parts of rural America – the Carolinas, for example. That has changed the dynamics in some rural areas. They’re one of the factors that can help rural counties that have had substantial population loss start to grow again, as they have in parts of the Midwest where Hispanics have come in to work in food processing plants or in changing kinds of agriculture. …

The Great Recession [the second topic] had two big effects. It reduced fertility in the United States by almost 10% and I think, based on my calculations, about 3 million fewer babies were born in the United States between 2008 and 2014 than would have been born had the fertility patterns … before the recession continued. … The other thing that the Great Recession did is it froze people in place, so that they didn’t move as much. … Areas that traditionally have gained population because of migration, … their population growth rate slowed down in the recession. In contrast, the kinds of counties which tend to lose people, which would include the remote rural counties and also the big urban cores, those areas lost fewer people than they would have typically lost because fewer people left them.

Daily Yonder: What do you hope to learn?

Johnson: I’m looking at those two phenomena, which I think are two of the most important things that have gone on in rural America in the last couple of decades. Then I’m asking what implications do those demographic changes have for the kinds of things that give people opportunity in rural America, like how have they affected the incidence of child poverty, which … is higher in rural America than it is in urban America? What impact does it have on the ability of government institutions to provide services? Rural America traditionally has to provide government services to a much more spread out population.

Daily Yonder: Where do you see opportunities for rural counties, and what type of rural counties do you think can take advantage of those opportunities? 

I think the rural counties that have the best opportunities are the ones that are on the outer edges of the metropolitan area, because they can benefit from the proximity of the urban areas and some of the services that are only available in urban areas. For example, you’re not going to get tertiary hospitals in very many rural counties, but if you’re near a metro area, you would have access to those if you need them. Also, the spillover of jobs and things. They’re traditionally the counties that have had more opportunity. The other ones are the amenity counties, which are becoming centers for retirement and for recreation. Some people suggest that the creative classes are attracted to these areas as well. Some of the research out of the USDA’s ERS has suggested that. … Now the recession slowed all that down.

[Another type of rural county that could have more opportunities is] counties which have a bigger place in them, … often in areas where there are no metro areas around the bigger rural places. [These areas have] more services, and activities, and the economic activity that’s going on in the area. …

In contrast, I think many of the farm counties probably are going to continue to see population loss. Many of their demographic structures are such that they have more people dying in them than being born, so that the only way they could really grow would be by migration. With the exception of inflows of Hispanics, there aren’t many other places that are getting inflows of younger adults into them.

The other opportunity I think has to do with how Hispanics are going to be incorporated into rural areas. They do represent young people and children coming into these areas, many of which have done nothing but close schools. You know how complicated closing a rural school is. It creates huge controversies when they have to consolidate them. Many of them really could benefit from having more children in them and more young people in them.

Also, if young children interact with young children from other racial and ethnic groups when they’re still children, the chances that they’re going to have less discriminatory attitudes are greater than if they don’t interact with people of other races until they’re grown up. There’s a lot of psychological research on that. … It also is a challenge for communities that have never had to have multiple racial groups or deal with English as a second language or anything like that. It’s a challenge to them as well. There are both opportunities and challenges related to Hispanics coming in. That’s one of the things I want to try and look at.

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