Mapping the Diversity and Demographic Change of Rural America
The release of the 2020 Census demographics provided a much-anticipated glimpse into the demographic trends that are reshaping our nation, but it also sparked a wave of predictable headlines touting the demise of “shrinking rural America. “The familiar tale of”two Americas“- one diverse, metropolitan and prosperous and the other white, rural and declining – has returned once again, often explicitly equating” “rural “with” whiteÂ»Or, even more simplistic, with white Trump voters.
While this narrative offers an easy way to think of America in binary terms, it obscures the much more complicated trends shaping rural America: most notably, its growing demographic diversity over the past decade. While it is true that the population of non-metropolitan America has fallen about half a percentage point between 2010 and 2020, the future of rural America is increasingly marked by increasing diversity and growing inequalities within and between regions, creating a complex picture that binary thinking cannot capture.
Here, we present three demographic trends from the 2020 Census that reverse outdated assumptions about non-metropolitan America and conclude with a call for a more inclusive future for increasingly diverse and vibrant cities and rural areas.
1. Rural America has become more racially and ethnically diverse over the past decade
Unlike mainstream accounts that use “rural” as a synonym for “white,” 24% of rural Americans were people of color in 2020. While rural America is even less diverse than the nation as a whole (42.2% people of color), it is also diversifying: the median rural county has seen its population of color increase by 3.5 percentage points. between 2010 and 2020 (Figure 1).
In addition, the demographic diversity in rural America varies greatly from place to place: in 2020, two-thirds of rural counties were made up of 10% or more people of color, one-third were made up of more than 10% of people of color. a quarter of people of color and 10% of rural counties are predominantly people of color (Figure 2).
Stories that erase the 24% of rural Americans who are people of color – as well as the many rural counties that are predominantly people of color – devalue the needs of rural people of color who face it. systemic barriers to opportunity, especially in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, while giving rhetorical priority to the concerns of an imagined white rural monolith.
2. The distribution of people of color in rural America is complex and highly regionalized.
The makeup of rural populations of color is shaped by highly regionalized variations in the concentration of Black Americans, Latin Americans, and Native Americans across the country. As shown in Figure 2, the rural southern and western counties are particularly racially and ethnically diverse, with a substantial number of rural areas in these regions predominantly or nearly predominantly people of color.
Blacks are the largest population of color in almost all of the southern rural plains, where the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow have had a lasting effect on economic mobility and poverty. Indigenous groups make up the largest population of color in rural areas of eastern Oklahoma, the Four Corners region, much of the northern Great Plains, and most of the Great Plains. ‘Alaska and were found at have lower educational attainment, higher poverty rates, lower household incomes, and lower educational attainment than Aboriginal groups living in metropolitan areas. Asian Americans make up the largest population of color in rural Hawaii and in the Borough of Kodiak Island and the Western Aleutian Census Area in Alaska. The large Asian American populations in these rural Alaska areas consist largely of Filipino American communities that originally formed around jobs in the fishing and canning industries.
This regional variation also has political ramifications. As researchers of the Economic Innovation Group underline Last fall, Trump won just three predominantly black rural counties in the United States and is doing poorly among rural workers employed in the recreation and hospitality industries, particularly in the rural west. . Rural counties with recreation-oriented economies have also been more likely to gain population in the last decade, which means that the future of rural America is not only increasingly diverse, but not as conservative as many assume.
3. Latin American populations continued to stimulate diversity in rural America
When one examines the changes that have occurred in rural Latin American, Black, and Indigenous populations in America over the past decade, it becomes clear that the expansion of diversity is largely due to the growth of the rural population. Latin American.
As shown in Figure 3, the rural black population has remained relatively constant in most of the United States, although it is declining as a fraction of the black belt population and increasing in areas that have experienced population growth. rapid in recent years, such as the shale gas fields of western North Dakota.
Figure 4 reveals that although the indigenous fraction of the rural population increased in most areas that already had large indigenous populations, it decreased in the shale gas boom area in western Dakota of North America. North, probably due to the large influx of people from other regions into this region. of the country over the past decade.
Finally, Figure 5 reveals how the rural Latino and Hispanic population has grown rapidly along the Pacific coast and in the oil and gas-rich areas of the high plains, as well as in a scattering of counties further east. In fact, the population is increasing in many rural areas were motivated only by the increase in the number of Latino residents– many of whom immigrated to work in meat packing plants, farms or industries such as construction, petroleum and timber, or to start businesses. However, there are substantial variations in the patterns of change of the Latin American population in rural America, with Latinos providing a “demographic lifelineâIn some rural areas, while declining in relative terms in some of the areas where their populations have historically been largest (such as northern New Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas).
The future of rural America requires political choices that value its increasingly diverse population
While the patterns of demographic change in rural America are complex and regionalized, the key to remember is clear: the future of rural America is increasingly marked by demographic, regional, and economic diversity. Over the past decade, rural population growth has been driven by people of color (especially Latinos) and rural recreation-oriented counties.
These diagrams underscore the need to reject the idea of ââuniversal policies and programs for rural America and to recognize the importance of fostering diversity, vibrancy and connected rural communities. Our colleagues at Brookings, as well as researchers at Center for American Progress, urged the federal government to support these goals by investing in local strategies to strengthen local assets and promote racial and economic justice.
At the community level, this means that local rural leaders must adopt intentional strategies foster demographic diversity and vibrant local economies – our research showing that many of them are already doing this by supporting clusters of small local businesses that create community wealth, implementing improvements to the built environment and quality of life for vulnerable residents, by strengthening cohesion among neighbors and the development of new community-led structures to build capacity and advance community priorities.
Rural areas represent more than 70% of our nation’s territory. Rather than trying to enclose them in an archaic framework, our policies must value the diversity which is both their present and their future.
 In this article, we define âruralâ counties as those that are not located in a Metropolitan statistical area (MSA). However, we recognize that there is no simple rural-urban dichotomy, and these dichotomies are not necessarily useful – as non-metropolitan classifications evolve over time with population changes, may fail to capture cultural understandings of “rural” that do not reflect demographics, and may serve to mask the interconnected nature of rural-urban interdependence in today’s world. economy.
 In this article, we define “people of color” as anyone who reports their race as other than “white only” or who identifies their ethnicity as “Hispanic or Latino” on the census. We use âindigenous peoplesâ to refer to people who identify their race as âAmerican Indian or Alaska Native onlyâ or âNative Hawaiian or Pacific Islander onlyâ and do not identify their ethnicity as âHispanic or latino âon the census. We use “Black” and “Asian American” to refer to people who identify their race as “Black or African American only” and “Asian only” respectively, and “Latino or Hispanic” to refer to people who declare an ethnic origin. . of “Hispanic or Latino”, regardless of race. While this is an oversimplification of race and ethnicity in the United States, we have used these categories as a way to approximate broad trends in the distribution of the population.