Rural America Population and Demographics Myths : The Indicator from Planet Money Rural communities are sometimes perceived as farmland with a homogenous population, but economist Gbenga Ajilore helps us explain the demographic and economic diversity within Rural America.

Myths And Realities Of America’s Rural Economy

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Economist Gbenga Ajilore has been studying the economy of rural America for a long time. And when he speaks with people who are not from rural America, he finds that they often have the wrong impression.

GBENGA AJILORE: I see three assumptions that people make. One - that rural America is all white and that there's very little people of color there, that it's all farming, that it's all agriculture-based. And then third is that rural America is dying and that we're all just going to be a city-based economy.


Gbenga's research on rural America has been focusing on correcting these assumptions. And this year, Gbenga got a new job with quite a long, fancy title.

GARCIA: (Laughter) Yeah.

AJILORE: So the full title is senior adviser in the Office of the Undersecretary for Rural Development at the Department of Agriculture.


VANEK SMITH: AKA super-fancy government job.

GARCIA: Yeah (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: They just can't really put that on a business card yet.

GARCIA: Not enough space.

VANEK SMITH: Congratulations, Gbenga. Anyway (laughter) what this basically means is that Gbenga is providing economic analysis about rural America to the Department of Agriculture. In fact, he is hoping to prevent these kinds of false assumptions from misguiding policymakers.


GARCIA: And so today on the show, in case policymakers or anyone else just wants a shortcut and they want to get everything they need to know from a 10-minute podcast...

VANEK SMITH: Welcome, policymakers.

GARCIA: Yeah. We are going to have a chat with Gbenga about the myths and realities of America's rural economy.


GARCIA: Economist Gbenga Ajilore says the first rule about rural America is that there is no rural America.

VANEK SMITH: It's like "Fight Club" except with cows.

GARCIA: Yeah, that's what I was going to say. That's not actually what he said (laughter). What he actually said was this.

AJILORE: So there's so many different parts of rural America that it's a misnomer to actually categorize all of that under one monolithic theme.

VANEK SMITH: What Gbenga means is that rural America is not one thing. It's more like a collection of rural communities, each with different economies, with different strengths and problems and different characteristics. And Gbenga says one of the best ways to see this is to look at the racial and ethnic makeup of the people who live in each of these rural communities.

GARCIA: For example, throughout much of middle America, including the big farming areas, more than 9 out of 10 people are white. And for all of rural America, roughly 8 out of 10 people are white. Now, that's definitely higher than the 6 out of 10 people who are white in the U.S. overall. But Gbenga's very point is that these figures mask a lot of demographic diversity in the individual rural communities. For example, here are some estimates from his own analysis.

AJILORE: And so if you look at a breakdown, just a regional breakdown, African Americans in rural areas in the Northeast - it's only about 2%; in the Midwest, about 1.5% percent. In the West, it's even smaller. It's under 1%. But in the South, it is 16.6%. So the population of African Americans in the rural South is greater than it is in the national one.

GARCIA: Gbenga says that's why this part of rural America in the South is often referred to as the Black Belt. There's also the rural parts of the Great Plains states that have a high share of Native Americans living in them, like in New Mexico and Montana. Plus, there is the rural Hispanic centers in the Southwest and West, like in Arizona and California.

VANEK SMITH: And in all three of these regions, there is a smaller share of white residents than there is in the U.S. overall. And that's why Gbenga says it's a myth that rural America is all white.

GARCIA: The second myth that needs to go, Gbenga says, is that the rural American economy is all about farming and the extraction of natural resources, like mining. These are definitely still important sectors, but they're far from the biggest.

AJILORE: So service sector employment is the largest sector in rural communities, and it's been like that for a long time.

GARCIA: In most rural communities, the combined services of education and health care and social assistance employ the most people. In fact, these sectors employ roughly the same share of people throughout rural America as in the rest of the country, about 23%. In a lot of rural counties, a local school system or the hospital, for example, is the single biggest employer.

VANEK SMITH: And even in rural towns that originally depended on a different industry or on a different employer, these services naturally sprung up around those industries to complement them, says Gbenga.

AJILORE: We think about meatpacking plants. And in the 20th century - early part of 20th century, meatpacking plants were prevalent in urban areas. But they start to move out into smaller towns to become kind of like that one employer in a town. Another example is automobile industry moved from the North, moving down south to Mississippi and Alabama. A lot of it is to take advantage of the low-wage labor market and the lack of unionization. And so this is - actually has pushed these rural economies away from agriculture to the service sector.

GARCIA: This is also why it's a big deal when the one hospital in a rural town closes. There might just not be many other employers left. Plus, it means that residents of that town have to look further out to access health care. This is especially a problem in places like the Black Belt, where there's been a huge increase in the number of hospitals that have closed over the last few decades. And finally, myth No. 3 that needs busting, Gbenga says, is the idea that rural America is dying or destined for permanent decline.

VANEK SMITH: But in fact, some parts of rural America are thriving. About 1 out of every 3 rural counties has enjoyed strong population growth in recent decades, with their populations actually peaking as they headed into the last decade. That's according to the latest data.

GARCIA: Unfortunately, that's also roughly the same share of rural counties that are depopulating. About 1 out of every 3 rural counties has lost more than 25% of its population since 1950. The populations of these counties are aging partly because so many young adults of childbearing age are leaving for the cities and suburbs in search of job opportunities.

VANEK SMITH: And for these counties, this kind of vicious cycle can set in. People leaving means there's less money for taxes and investment to provide the amenities and services that people want. And so more people leave, which means the tax base drops again and so on. And this is one reason why incomes are lower and poverty rates are higher in rural America than in the rest of the country.

GARCIA: But nothing about this cycle is inevitable. It can be slowed or even reversed. And Gbenga says even in some communities where the population looked like it would be in permanent decline, there have been success stories, especially in the places that have a lot of immigration.

AJILORE: And so you have a lot of people, immigrants coming in to work at meatpacking plants or other manufacturing places. The other thing is that a lot of immigration from other areas in terms of people coming to the U.S. for, you know, becoming doctors, lawyers, things like that - higher education - and then coming to these communities. So you think about the Midwest. There's like a, you know, population of, say, Vietnamese in, say, Nebraska or Kansas, these areas, or like the Hmong population in Minnesota - that these places do not struggle as much with population loss because they're welcoming immigrants. And that helps them to not only just having people there, but then these people start stores or start their own business. So you see a lot of that entrepreneurship, self-employment that's helping to keep that area vibrant.

GARCIA: Finally, Gbenga's primary message here is that people who live in cities and suburbs should not think of rural America as a place that's in decline and needs help. Instead, they should be turning to rural America as a place that's experienced a wide diversity of economic challenges and triumphs and, therefore, is a place to find ideas for how to address the big socioeconomic issues of the day, like climate change, trade, immigration, education, health care - pretty much all of them, really.


VANEK SMITH: We've got a lot of problems to address.


VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: Maybe the one...

VANEK SMITH: We've got 99 problems and more.

GARCIA: Yeah. Maybe the one problem not to turn to rural America for is like apartment living, you know - how to squeeze, like, thousands of people into one apartment.

VANEK SMITH: How to deal with your noisy neighbors.

GARCIA: Exactly. That's it, though.

VANEK SMITH: Everything else. Everything else.

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi and fact-checked by Sam Cai. It was edited by Jolie Myers, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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