Each year, USDA’s Economic Research Service provides a snapshot of the rural economy in a report entitled Rural America at a Glance. The past year witnessed some encouraging trends, as rural employment grew more than 1 percent during the year ending in second-quarter 2015, following several years of stagnation. Rural unemployment also fell below 6 percent in 2015 for the first time since mid-2008.
Despite the positive trend, rural employment in mid-2015 was still 3.2 percent below its pre-recession peak in 2007. Rural employment growth was also outpaced by an urban employment growth rate of nearly 2 percent over the recent one-year period.
Further, rural areas continue to experience population loss, higher poverty rates, and lower educational attainment than urban areas. Rural population declined for the fourth year in a row in 2014, falling 116,000 over the last 4 years. While this decline is small, it is the first such period of decline on record and contrasts with the urban population, which continues to grow by more than 2 million per year.
The rural population decline reflects net outmigration of nearly 350,000 people over the past four years, combined with a long-term decline in the rate of natural increase (excess of births over deaths) in rural areas. Low rates of natural increase reflect both past outmigration of young adults — lowering the birth rate — and, in some areas, the immigration of retirees, with deaths generally exceeding births.
Not all rural areas have experienced population loss in recent years. Some rural counties have seen population growth since 2010. These are concentrated in scenic areas such as the Rocky Mountains, or in energy boom regions such as the northern Great Plains – an example of the diversity of rural America.
Poverty rates fell slightly in both rural and urban areas between 2013 and 2014. The 2014 rate was 18.1 percent in rural areas and 15.1 percent in urban areas. Nonetheless, these rates remain close to peak rates seen after the Great Recession of 2007-09.
Poverty rates are particularly high for children, for female-headed households, and for minority racial and ethnic groups. In 2014 the rural poverty rate was 25.2 percent for children, 37.7 percent for female-headed households, and ranged up to nearly 37 percent for Blacks/African Americans.
Educational attainment increased in both rural and urban areas between 2000 and 2014. But in urban areas 32 percent of adults aged 25 or more had at least a 4-year degree in 2014, compared with only 19 percent in rural areas. On the other hand, the percentage of adults who have attended some college or completed an associate’s degree has increased more rapidly in rural areas and is now higher (30 percent) than in urban America (29 percent).