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Rural America At A Glance - 2015

By Walt Whitmer
As it does each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has recently released its annual snapshot of trends in rural America. Considering such issues as employment, poverty, education and income, Rural America at a Glance 2015 highlights both improvements in some trends and continuing challenges in others.
While there is of course variability across states and regions, the overall picture that emerges is one of rural areas continuing to adjust to on-going regional, national and global economic and demographic forces. 
Among the highlights of this year’s report:
  • Rural employment has started to recover from its recessionary lows.  Rural employment grew by more than 1 percent in 2015 – a marked improvement from the previous years of either very slow growth or decline.  Nonetheless, rural employment in mid-2015 was still 3.2% below its pre-recession peak in 2007. 
  • The unemployment rate has considerably and fairly consistently declined in both rural and urban areas in the last 5 years.
  • Unemployment remains the highest for those with the least education.  Among rural residents, the unemployment rates are much lower for those with more education, partly as a result of increasing demand for more highly skilled labor.
  • Lower educational attainment is associated with higher unemployment and poverty.  While educational attainment has improved considerably over time in rural America, the share of the adult population with a 4-year college degree remains far lower in rural areas than in urban areas and the gap has grown over time.   
  • Population decline continues in much of rural America. The number of people living in rural counties stood at just over 46 million in 2014 – almost 15% of all U.S. residents (27% in PA in 2010). While considerable variability exists across the nation, rural counties as a whole have lost 116,000 residents over the last 4 years. While this decline is relatively small, 2010-2014 is the first period of overall population decline for rural America on record.  In Pennsylvania, while the overall rural population grew slightly over this time period, more than half the state’s rural counties lost population.
  • Net out-migration outpaces natural increase in rural U.S. counties. Simply put, more people are moving out of rural counties than are being born in these counties. 
  • Poverty remains a challenge in rural areas.  In 2014 the overall U.S. poverty rate was 15.5% while the rural poverty rate was 18.1% compared to 15.1% in urban areas – both down slightly from the previous year. Child poverty increased the most during and after the recession
  • Rural poverty is highest among minority racial and ethnic groups and single-parent families are most likely to be in poverty.