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While Cities Recover, The Rural Economy Still Struggles To Shake Off Great Recession

Luke Runyon
Harvest Public Media
A corn field in rural Weld County, Colorado.

The Great Recession decimated the American economy more than eight years ago. And while many of America’s cities have crawled back to modest economic prosperity, the rural economy has stagnated, displaying few bright spots in employment and poverty rates.

In short: rural parts of the country are still struggling.

Rural America at a Glance 2016, an annual report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture,  underlines the economic distress many rural residents, and voters, have felt since the Great Recession. It also reiterates the idea that increased rural turnout for Donald Trump tipped the scales in the 2016 presidential election. 

The report, like previous iterations published since the recession, paints a bleak picture. Like a drumbeat over the years, the report’s themes have stayed steady, as economic health problems have proven stubbornly difficult to reverse: employment rates stagnated; population declined, then plateaued; people became poorer; more children grew hungry.

Population stagnation

In July 2015, the total population in rural counties stood at about 46.2 million. That’s 14 percent of U.S. residents, spread across 72 percent of the country’s total land area. In a four-year span starting in 2010, the population dropped by 130,000 people -- a mix of rural flight, and deaths outpacing births. The population remained roughly unchanged in 2015.

The numbers are more stark when compared to urban areas, classified by the Census Bureau as a densely populated area, having more than 50,000 people. “Rural” includes all people and housing not within an urban area.

“Urban areas have had moderate but consistent population growth of close to one percent per year in recent years,” the report reads. “As a result, by 2015 the urban population was nearly 8 percent above its level at the start of the recession in 2007.” Meanwhile, rural population was up only a half a percentage point since the recession first hit.

Employment slow to rise

While the rural employment rate has risen slightly in the past couple years, it still remains well below its pre-2008 level.

Rural employment ticked up slightly between the end of 2015 and the first half of 2016. Still, rural areas are experiencing the economic recovery much differently than urban dwellers. Urban employment has accelerated in recent years, in fact the urban employment rate rose twice as rapidly than in rural areas, and was 4 percent above its 2007 level by 2015.

Economic diversity lacking

Rural America is not a monolith. Rural counties vary greatly in how their economies are structured and their population is distributed.

The report splits counties based on their dependence on a particular industry sector, like agriculture, mining, manufacturing, government and recreation. Some counties represent a mix of industries, while others are non-specialized, with no clear dependence on one sector.

Looking at counties based on industry dependence, the recession hit manufacturing and agriculture-based counties harder than others. People fled hard-hit areas, often to find work in cities.

“Rural manufacturing counties, hard-hit by the recession and its aftermath, went from modest population growth in the early 2000s to slight population decline in more recent years,” the report notes. The same goes for farming-based counties, which experienced a population drop of 4 percent since 2000.

Looking for the bright side

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has built his legacy as a champion of rural America, rooting for the success and vitality of rural areas post-recession. He’s now in the waning days of his tenure as one of the longest-serving USDA secretaries in U.S. history.

In a press release announcing the last Rural America at a Glance report of his tenure, Vilsack laid out just how difficult a job it was to help rural areas rebound.

"At the depths of the Great Recession, rural counties were shedding 200,000 jobs per year, rural unemployment stood at nearly 10 percent, and poverty rates reached heights unseen in decades. Many rural communities were ill-positioned to bounce back quickly,” he said in a statement.

Vilsack’s department has pumped money into hard-hit rural areas. Still, it’s unclear how much success the efforts have had in pulling vast swathes of rural America out of the economic turmoil the recession wrought. Passed during his tenure, the long-stalled 2014 Farm Bill increased rural development spending from $9 million in 2014 to $54 million in 2015. The USDA also spent billions on rural infrastructure projects, boosting broadband internet, retrofitting wastewater treatment plants and incentivizing farmers to make energy efficiency upgrades.

For Vilsack, slow ticks upward in employment and the fact rural population stayed steady in 2015 were bright spots and reasons to celebrate.

"Today's report underscores the result of these efforts: rural America has begun a remarkable comeback.”

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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