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Census Bureau shines spotlight on rural America, gives close look at changes in demography, work

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By Tim Marema
Daily Yonder

The Census released its five-year American Community Survey data with a major focus on rural America. This is the year when there is more rural data available, but the release also comes after increased attention to the so-called information “bubble” after the presidential election.

The Census Bureau put the spotlight on rural America recently when it released the results of its latest American Community Survey, the data that gives us the closest look at changes in American demography, economics, work, and lifestyles.

Meanwhile, the survey showed that the Census-defined rural population remained steady from last year.

The press release that announced the new Census data focused on rural information, noting that rural Americans are more likely to own their own homes, live in the state where they were born, and to have served in the military. And the bureau dug beyond the standard data tables to report on subsets of rural counties.

change_in_rural_urban_pop_1910-2010

The press release, along with seven blog posts, provides an unusually thorough look at rural demographics and economics.

The Census Bureau director said in the press release that the focus on rural was because this year’s ACS has more data on smaller counties, so it’s possible to say more.

“Rural areas cover 97 percent of the nation’s land area but contain 19.3 percent of the population (about 60 million people),” Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson said. “By combining five years of survey responses, the American Community Survey provides unequaled insight into the state of every community, whether large or small, urban or rural.”

A statement from the Census public information office confirmed that the focus on the differences between rural and urban residents was because this is the year Census data allow such a comparison.

“It’s only because of the survey’s reach into every county nationwide, and only through combining five years of data (an initial sample size of 3.5 million annually x 5 years) that we’re able to produce data for more sparsely populated areas,” the statement said.

But researchers familiar with routine Census Bureau announcements said they found the focus on rural to be unusual, even for the five-year ACS data.

Rural America has been in the news since the November election because of the margin of victory President-elect Donald Trump won there. Trump got about two thirds of the votes in rural counties and counties with small cities (under 50,000), performing several points higher than candidate Mitt Romney did in 2012.

One popular theory is that the results of the election came as such a surprise because media, pundits, and pollsters were in an information “bubble” and unaware of the depth of discontent outside major cities.

The Census reports create a leak, if not a burst, in the information bubble.

(Several parts of the Census report are below.)

Also, the Daily Yonder did a quick check of rural population figures and confirmed that the size of the rural population has remained flat since 2012. About 60 million Americans are classified as “rural” in the survey, a statistical tie with the 2014 rural population estimate.

The percentage of the U.S. population that is rural dropped very slightly because the size of the urban population increased at a greater rate.

The chart (top of article) provided by the Census Bureau shows that the raw number of rural residents has remained relatively stable, using the Census definition, over the last century. But the proportion of rural residents has dropped from about half to about one fifth over the same period.

The Census Bureau uses a different definition of rural, so these findings won’t correspond with the most common form of rural definition used in the Yonder, which is based on metropolitan statistical areas and doesn’t get below the county level. The Census definition is a finer-grained tool, but it’s hard to use with the large amount of federal data that is compiled only at the county level.

Here are other highlights from the Census announcement:

— Most adults in both rural and urban areas owned their own homes but the percentage was higher in rural areas (81.1 percent compared with 59.8 percent).
— Adults in rural areas were also more likely to live in single-family homes (78.3 percent compared with 64.6 percent) and live in their state of birth (65.4 percent compared with 48.3 percent).
— Veterans comprised 10.4 percent of the population of adults in rural areas compared with 7.8 percent of adults in urban areas.
— Adults in rural areas had a median age of 51, making them older compared with adults in urban areas with a median age of 45. They had lower rates of poverty (11.7 percent compared with 14.0 percent) but were less likely to have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher (19.5 percent compared with 29.0).
— Rural communities had fewer adults born in other countries compared with those in urban areas (4.0 percent compared with 19.0 percent)
— Children in rural areas had lower rates of poverty (18.9 percent compared with 22.3 percent) but more of them were uninsured (7.3 percent compared with 6.3 percent). A higher percentage of own children in rural areas lived in married-couple households (76.3 percent compared with 67.4 percent). (“Own children” includes never-married biological, step and adopted children of the couple.)
— Compared with households in urban areas, rural households had lower median household income ($52,386 compared with $54,296), lower median home values ($151,300 compared with $190,900), and lower monthly housing costs for households paying a mortgage ($1,271 compared with $1,561). A higher percentage owned their housing units “free and clear,” with no mortgage or loan (44.0 percent compared with 32.3 percent).

Tim Marema is editor of The Daily Yonder, where this story originally appeared. It is reprinted with permission.

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