The Definition of Rural

Originally posted by idiosynchronic on 04/05/07

Nonpartisan yesterday asked, “IS there such a thing as rural America?  I dunno.  But it’s a really important question.”

I responded that:

There is such a thing as rural America.

But how do we quantify it?  I think any significant definition deals with not only distance but also access to telecommunications.  You can be 2 hours away from a minor city, and go there less than every 6 months, but if you have local and national TV channels and DSL and frequent the Internet, do you still live in a rural life?

I’ll try and expand on this, and I hope the rest of the gang here adds there own thoughts – both on historic and current concepts on what is rural.

The damn statistics of rural qualification
“According to official U.S. Census Bureau definitions, rural areas comprise open country and settlements with fewer than 2,500 residents.”

In the 2000 Census, the Economic Research Service of the USDA classified the population densities of America into 9 categories; the first 3 tiers were metro, or urban, and the other 6 as rural, and then split again according to population size and proximity to urban areas.

According to this report, 232,579,000 people out of 281 million lived in urban areas – almost 83%.  Of those 49 million left over in rural populations, just under 17 million of the people, 34% or only 5% of the national population, live in areas not proxim to an urban area.

If qualifying the population only in completely ‘rural’ areas – those with a population of only 2500 and non-adjacent to any urban areas – the truly rural population is only 2 million, or 0.9% of the population.

Rural doesn’t mean living in the country
Princeton’s wordnet defines rural as:

living in or characteristic of farming or country life; “rural people”; “large rural households”; “unpaved rural roads”; “an economy that is basically rural”

Well that produces images, doesn’t it?  And almost all of them stereotypes.

The problem is that the “country life” hasn’t been ‘rural’ in centuries.  Modern country life can easily encompass an exurban family living on 2 acres supporting their household not through agriculture, but through careers in non-agricultural fields by commuting.  Their tractor may have a grass cutting tool permanently affixed to the bottom of the transmission housing.  If the family isn’t considered lower upper class, they’re at least considered middle class with a fairly affluent lifestyle.

The ‘country life’ is not a modern invention – it’s been around since the pre-industrialization era.  Multitudes of records exist onwards from 16th century England and France showing the purchase of farms and cottages by the moderately wealthy and rich.  The trend was so well-established by the time of the founding of the Americas that it even informs our stereotypes of Jane Austen and the rest of her contemporaries. In short, the bourgeoisie has been trying to get back to the ‘simpler life’ since the invention of the bourgeoisie.

So is rural a lifestyle or an economy that is directly or closely dependent on agriculture?  Political candidates in Iowa have been justifying agricultural economic stimulus packages in the budget as means to ‘lift the tide of all boats’ for decades.  To a certain degree, that much is true.  If a rural financial collapse, on the order of the 1980’s Farm Crisis, happens again, Iowa and  other ag states will be thrown into a recession that will affect even the insurance companies that now seem to occupy Des Moines’ skyline.  But Wells Fargo and Principal – just to name a few of the companies here – are anything but rural.

Life in a small town as rural
The small town is sometimes seen as part of what we consider as rural. 

The small town is not what it used to be – even in areas that can’t even be considered exurban because they’re hours away from even small cities – these towns have satellite television, telephones, DVD players and VCRs, magazines, ATM’s and the Internet (even if it’s dial-up).  You can still identify the small-town kids when they’re in the capitol for state tournaments, but it’s more mannerisms and reactions to the unfamiliar that make the kids stand out than their clothes or looks.  People in small towns are acculturated in national culture as any other urban or suburban American.  What continues to make small town people different is that their interaction with others is less-broadly interactive – although I expect that as telecommunications continues to grown in leaps and bounds.  Small town people see the same magazines and programs as the rest of the country does, but they interact with only one another within a small pool of personalities limited by geography.

I have some experience with this – I’ve lived in 3 small towns  at various points, my son is growing up in the small town his mother grew up in, and my daughter (for good or bad) is about to become a small town kid.  My wife grew up farming on the weekends & in the summers with her father.

So small town isn’t necessarily rural either. In fact, one town I lived in had a bike shop – a full modern one with new season Trek and Cannondale bikes in it year round.  Another had it’s own comic and collectibles shop, complete with a local version of the Comic Book Guy.  And community & commuting growth almost guarantees that a significant portion of a small town’s labor base actually drives a half-hour or more to a urban center for work that is not directly based in agriculture.  My son’s mother works for textile branding company; his step-father is a warehouse manager for a regional super-market chain.

So is rural to be a poor & isolated farmer?
Considering these rejections of what rural means, it significantly reduces our definition of rural to a very small slice of American population.  The portion of Americans (and Iowans) living on farms far from even small towns and with significant other impediments to interacting with others.  It instantly qualifies the Amish of Wayne County, Iowa, as a rural population while their neighbors in the county seat (including my son) as not rural.  But all of them live on paved roads while my son’s grandfather, a large animal vet, lives on a dirt road.

So is rural now strictly limited to a people living on farms and acreages, miles from any town, and working on the land because it’s all that’s available to them?

Additional Reading:
Robert Wolf, “iowa: Living In the Third World, originally published in the Des Moines Register, 1995.

“Definitions of Rural PDF, Valerie du Plessis, Roland Beshiri, Ray D. Bollman, Heather Clemenson. Agriculture and Rural Working Paper Series Working Paper No. 61. Ottawa, Ontario: Statistics Canada, Agriculture Division, 2002. 

USDA National Agriculture Library Rural Information Center


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