The Census Bureau put the spotlight on rural America today 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.
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: