Daniel T. Lichter and Kenneth M. Johnson, Socius, Urbanization and the Paradox of Rural Population Decline: Racial and Regional Variation

Image: A rural landscape during late summer with blooming GoldenRod and tall, dry grass in the foreground, young Walnut trees in the midground, and a silo and barns in the background. Photo via author.

Rural America has been shrinking, right? Sociologists have been monitoring the alleged erosion of rural America and while many envision an exodus of millions of families packing their possessions and moving to the city, sociological research tells us a different story. The true story is that, without moving, many families once considered “rural” are now “urban” households. This urban-rural “line” has been simply moved. 

Daniel Lichter and Kenneth Johnson analyzed county-level changes for urban-rural classifications in the 2020 census. Urban or rural classifications are technical: the United States government categorizes counties as either urban or rural based on their population size and density, the percent of the population that commutes, and their economic activity. 

Comparing 1980 to 2020, Lichter and Johnson found that 464 counties that were previously considered rural have since been recategorized as urban. Although we might typically consider many of these shifting counties as “suburban,” the primary census categories are either urban (metro) or rural (nonmetro). As a result of these changing categorizations, between the 1980 and 2020 censuses, there was a 64% increase in the technical number of urban counties at the expense of historically rural counties.

The researchers also found that “rural” America is not only becoming smaller, it is also becoming less white. This is a result of both white, rural depopulation – with white people moving out of rural towns – and other racial groups’ internal population growth within rural counties. In terms of population, white-rural America has decreased by nearly 14 million [28% decrease] and minority-rural America has increased by over 3 million [40% increase]. 

In short, the commonly spun story of predominantly Black urban city dwellers and white rural farmers may be conceptually familiar, but it distorts today’s, real picture. Our popular understandings of the “city” or “country” and “urban” or “rural” are changing, and where and how we draw the line is important.

Image: From the Daniel T. Lichter and Kenneth M. Johnson’ s publication [Figure 2] showing the designation of counties as consistent nonmetro in white, transitioning from nonmetro to metro in orange, or consistent metro in red.

Click here to visit an interactive map from the U.S. Census Bureau about rural America.