The notion of a deep and enduring divide between thriving, affluent, progressive urban areas and declining, impoverished, conservative rural areas has become a central trope—if not the central trope— in American culture today. In May 2017, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “Rural America Is the New Inner City”.1 Ever since Donald Trump was elected president, the narrative of urban revitalization and rural decline has only gained steam.
But, in reality, this narrative fails to capture the full complexity of economic life in America. In fact, parts of rural America are thriving, even as other parts decline; just as parts of urban America continue to lose population and face economic decline as other parts comeback.
This report takes a close look at the myths and realities of America’s urban-rural divide. To do so, is uses the rural-urban continuum developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sorts America’s more than 3,000 counties into nine different types of places, from highly urbanized counties in large metropolitan areas to small, isolated rural counties.2 Our analysis covers six key areas: population growth, jobs, wages, talent measured as college grads and as the knowledge-based creative class, and economic mobility. For most of these indicators, our analysis covers the decade and a half period from 2001 to 2016, which spans the Great Recession and subsequent recovery.
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