Redefining Rural America: Beyond the ‘Rural-Urban’ Divide

The “rural-urban divide” is real, but complicated. Most communities are neither entirely rural or urban, instead situated somewhere along a spectrum. Recognizing this is the key for policymakers, scholars, and activists seeking a better understanding of the complexities and contradictions of America’s diverse communities, particularly those of rural America.

It’s also the message coming from a recent report called America at Work: A National Mosaic and Roadmap for Tomorrow, which lays out a new framework for understanding the rural-urban spectrum. The authors posit that communities generally fall into one of eight major archetypes, each with its own distinct strengths and challenges. While the report is especially interested in how these characteristics can shape a community’s response to automation, it also offers us an entirely new paradigm for understanding the nation’s rural-urban divide within other contexts, like education policy and reform. 

From most urban to most rural, here are the eight community archetypes identified in the America at Work report. 

    • Urban Centers and Core Suburbs: This archetype is composed of America’s major metropolitan areas, including New York City, NY and Cook County (Chicago), IL. Growing urbanization in these communities means that populations tend to be more diverse, have more varied job opportunities, and greater access and choice in educational institutions, though inequities are often more pronounced. Housing prices and other cost of living expenses are also considerably high in urban centers. 
    •  Urban Periphery: These outer suburbs often feature major employers and industries, but rely heavily on nearby urban centers. Many residents of these communities commute to work each day, as many jobs are moving closer to the city. Household income and employment rates are similar to nearby urban centers and core suburbs, though educational attainment tends to be slightly lower. 
    •  Smaller Independent Economies: These communities are smaller cities that stand on their own economically without being a part of a major metropolitan area. They may house the headquarters of major corporations or large state colleges and universities, and household incomes tend to fall roughly in the middle of the rural-urban continuum. The economies of these communities rely more heavily on educated white-collar workers than more rural areas.
    •  Americana: The heart of traditional “rural America.” Americana communities are spread throughout the country, ranging from the plains of the Midwest to New England farmland. Household income and educational attainment are lower than in more urban areas, but major “anchor employers” may be a key factor in the workforces of these communities. However, common industries in these communities—including agriculture and energy—may be shifting. On average, Americana communities are over 100 miles away from the nearest metropolitan area but may have relative proximity to smaller cities. 
    •  Distressed Americana: Concentrated in the South but found throughout other parts of the country, these communities face major challenges. Populations are declining, educational attainment rates are low, and job opportunities are scarce. Many Distressed Americana communities once thrived due to industries like coal mining and manufacturing that are disappearing. 
    •  Rural Service Hubs: These communities, located mainly in the Western United States, are home to manufacturing and service industries. Rural service hubs are important to the citizens in surrounding rural areas who depend on them for healthcare, retail, and job opportunities.
    •  Great Escapes: Near the extreme rural end of the spectrum, Great Escape communities are located more than 500 miles away from a major city. While only 14 communities are classified as Great Escapes in the report, their characteristics are instinct. These areas are remote but wealthy, and they often have a thriving tourism industry. Communities like Kauai County, Hawaii and Nantucket County, Massachusetts depend on diverse, lower-income service workers.
    • Resource-Rich Regions: These areas are as rural as it gets. Resource-rich areas tend to be 300+ miles away on average from a major city and depend on natural resources like oil and gold. Sometimes called “Boomtowns,” these communities often experience rapid population growth when new resources are found; however, they also face the risk of decline once resources become scarce. Many residents of these communities are educated, skilled workers. 

Why It Matters

Because America at Work explores each community archetype from the perspective of automation, much of its analysis is concentrated on the future of work in these communities. From the report:

Some community archetypes are better prepared than others to respond to the challenges of the future of work. Both Urban Centers and Core Suburbs and Great Escapes are well positioned to harness automation for economic benefit, as evidenced by growing populations and GDP. Similarly, Rural Service Hubs and Resource-Rich Regions, largely located in the western United States, have benefited from a resource boom, with GDP per capita and household incomes that outpace other rural and semi-rural communities. In these four community archetypes, the primary challenges revolve around the labor supply—ensuring that the community has a robust, well-trained workforce with skills in the right industries—to meet the labor demand, particularly in job types that are growing.

However, this new framework holds promise for leaders who are serious about rethinking their approach on rural America in a variety of perspectives, including education. Justice can’t be achieved for rural students, families, or communities if decision makers don’t understand the complex challenges we face. Ensuring that our education systems align strongly to workforce expectations would be a valuable first step.

When the time finally comes for rural America to get its New Deal, we must not allow it to be one-size-fits-all. Our communities, as well as the challenges they face, are too diverse for check-box policymaking. Solutions that work in one rural community may not work in others, and it’s on policymakers to think through the complexities of rural communities as they make decisions.

We embrace the good work of Walmart and the Walton Family Foundation for sponsoring the America at Work report, which we hope will continue highlighting the importance of tailored, community-specific efforts to reshape work and education.

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