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. 

An older couple walking closely together along a gravel path on a cloudy autumn day. Image by EddieKphoto from Pixabay is licensed under Pixabay license.

Are you looking for love? Above the age of 60? Well, you’re in luck. With the advent of online dating, older singles are beginning to reenter the dating world. Social science research has mainly focused on the online dating experiences of twenty-somethings, but new research from Lauren Harris explored the dating preferences and patterns of older adults.

Harris interviewed 50 men and 50 women, ages 60-85, through four online dating sites. Three of the sites were for the general public and one was specifically targeted towards older adults. Harris asked participants questions about their motivation and interests in online dating such as: “What are you looking for in a romantic partner?,” “Do you have any deal breakers?,” and “What do you notice when looking through someone’s online dating profile?”

Harris discovered that family caregiving responsibilities played an important role in how older singles viewed potential matches. Oftentimes, older adults will still provide care for their adult children or grandchildren. Harris found that these caring responsibilities actually changed the desirability of singles online in gendered ways. 

Women with family care obligations were seen as less desirable. For example, one of the men interviewed explained his irritation with this dynamic saying, “Why are you teasing me and wasting my time when you have the responsibilities? …It just gets frustrating. Do you want a relationship or do you not? So if you’re always taking care of your grandkids, why are you on a dating site when you don’t have time to get into a relationship?”

In contrast, men who had similar care responsibilities were seen as more desirable to women. As one woman explained in her interview, “A lot of times they’ll say something about how they love their children and their families and spend a lot of free time with their family. I like that. I like a family man.” At the same time, however, if men appeared to be in poor health or have young children of their own their desirability decreased. Women tended to shy away from men which might add to their care work responsibilities. As one woman described,  “What they’re looking for is women to take care of them… Or they’re having health problems. Maybe the wives [were] taking care of them in life or whatever…I’m not your nurse.”

Harris highlighted the gendered role family care responsibilities play in selecting potential love interests at an older age. Many older adults have care responsibilities and are subsequently experiencing unequal gendered impacts on their dating life. Because romantic relationships can be a major source of support and improve overall well-being, the influence of gender inequality on the dating experiences of older adults is important to consider. Technology has allowed more older adults to re-enter the dating world, but it has also highlighted the persistent caregiving double standard. 

Two young adults sitting on a bench, one with a laptop and one with a folder, working together. Image by Zen Chung is licensed under Pexels license.

Although many adults look back upon their time in primary and secondary school fondly, access to education in America is discriminatory. Disabled people, in particular, face widespread discrimination in their early education. Although disabled people represent about a quarter of the US population, on average, they 1) receive fewer years of education, 2) are less likely to receive diplomas or degrees, and 3) earn substantially less when employed. Lauren Rivera and András Tilcsik’s new research uncovers how disability and racial discrimination interact to limit entrance to American public schools.

Rivera and Tilcsik first collected data through an experimental audit study, sending emails to over 20,000 primary and secondary school principals in several states, describing an imaginary student who was interested in attending their school. Researchers varied whether the fake student had an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), which indicates the student had an educational disability that schools must legally accommodate, and other student identities – leading principals to assume student characteristics.

They found clear evidence of admission discrimination against disabled students when compared to non-disabled students. Principals were generally less likely to respond to emails that described a student with a disability, regardless of the assumed gender or race of the student. This suggests that students with disabilities are at an increased risk for discrimination when seeking out educational opportunities.

For assumed Black and disabled students, they were 9.5% less likely to receive a response about a prospective tour than assumed White and disabled students and 5% less likely to receive any sort of positive response. This indicates that disabled Black students may experience a “double disadvantage” based both on their race and disability, creating a more challenging educational experience than White students with disabilities.

In the second part of their research, 578 principals, not involved in the audit study, participated in a separate survey. The researchers found that principals viewed both Black and White disabled students as more challenging because of the compulsory educational accommodations. Lastly, they found that surveyed principals understood Black families as a burden upon the school system as a whole. These families, not just the students, were perceived as “less valuable future members of the school community.”

Based on these findings, Rivera and Tilcsik suggest that all disabled students, regardless of race or gender, face more discrimination when seeking educational access. This contributes to the inequities disabled people experience throughout their lives in accessing education and then rippling into their jobs and personal lives. However, Black disabled students and families experience racial and disability discrimination.

A white father and son place plants in a garden bed together. Image 11481 by Cade Martin, Dawn Arlotta CDC is licensed under CC0.

“He’s on paternity leave,” is a phrase that seems to spell success for gender equality. While previous research has focused on how mothers affect children’s gender views, new research from Australia looks at the role of fathers in the development of children’s and adolescents’ gender values. Tomas Cano and Heather Hofmeister found that when fathers are more engaged with their kids and do more housework, their children are more likely to feel that men and women should have equal power and status in the workplace, world, and home. 

Cano and Hofmeister analyzed 10 years of data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children which gathers information about the opinions and routines of children and parents as they age. They used measures of the quality of father-child relationships, and father’s involvement in housework and childcare to assess how different kinds of parental involvement from fathers influences their children’s views on gender equality.

The study found that when fathers spent more time on childcare when children were young, kids are more likely to feel that men and women should be treated equally. When children got older and reached adolescence, different kinds of involvement from fathers had more effect. When fathers with older children take on housework, even in smaller amounts than their wives, their adolescent child is much more likely to express egalitarian views on gender.

The socialization of gender values in Australian adolescents can help us imagine how we could shift the behavior of fathers to promote more egalitarian gender values elsewhere. Further research is necessary to determine if the relationship between these fathering behaviors and children’s gender values is relevant across cultural lines. But the more that is learned about how values are internalized from paternal parenting, the more parents may pay attention to modeling not just what is polite or successful, but also what habits and actions communicate their values. 

A brown teddy bear with a bowtie laying on a hospital bed. Image by Mylene2401 from Pixabay is licensed under Pixabay license.

It’s no secret that childhood can influence the trajectory of adult life. Childhood disadvantages like financial strain and low socioeconomic status impact mental and physical development, which can set the stage for worse health outcomes in adulthood. Matthew A. Andersson and colleagues wanted to understand whether access to quality healthcare might limit the influence of childhood disadvantage on adult well-being.

To answer this question, Andersson and colleagues compared data from 16 countries, testing whether and how the quality and accessibility of European healthcare systems influence the illness rates of adults who experienced adverse childhood events. The researchers measured childhood disadvantage using information on childhood poverty, household conflict, and whether a parent was deceased or away from home. Healthcare quality and access were measured through both objective measures (how many adults in a country experience illness, the amount a country spends on healthcare, and the size of the healthcare system) and subjective measures (whether people in a country felt they had access to high-quality healthcare).

The researchers found that access to a good healthcare system – one that effectively prevents and manages disease –  reduced the effect of childhood adversity on adult health. In fact, the better the quality of a nation’s healthcare system the more it acts as a buffer against poor health outcomes.

This research shows how access to decent healthcare makes a real difference in shaping life outcomes. Quality healthcare may not eliminate childhood adversity, but it can offer the possibility for a healthier future for all.

Ben Crewe, Julie Laursen, and Kristian Mjåland, “Comparing deep-end confinement in England & Wales and Norway,” Criminology, 2023
A tall metal pole with multiple cameras fixed towards the top of the pole, with a dark blue sky with wispy clouds in the background. Image by Thomas Windisch is licensed under Pexels license.

There is prison, then there is prison within prison. Countries vary in their approach to these “deep-end” or high-security prison sections reserved for the most dangerous residents with a history of violence. Ben Crewe, Julie Laursen, and Kristian Mjåland compared two approaches towards these high-security prison units: one in England & Wales, and the other in Norway. After conducting 55 interviews with prisoners in restrictive “deep-end” confinement, the authors compared the experiences of prisoners in England & Wales’s traditional supermax system to Norway’s “inclusive othering.”

In Norway, now famous for its less restrictive prisons, deep confinement is rare and used to protect the outside community. Deep-end prisoners continue to enjoy benefits such as attending educational and job programs alongside the general prison population, lengthy, unsupervised visitation time (including accommodations for sexual activity), and supervised, temporary release for activities such as fishing, shopping, or meals with friends. 

Despite their relative freedom, people in deep-end Norwegian prisons were still concerned about being watched by cameras, the limits placed on their phone calls, and other connections with the outside world, especially in comparison to the general, less restrictive Norwegian prison environment. Lastly, although Norway does not give life sentences, people in the deep-end sometimes do not have a specific release date, leaving some feeling hopeless about serving an indefinite sentence.

In England & Wales, people in the deep-end are isolated for the safety of other prisoners rather than the safety of the outside community. Once isolated, the deep-enders felt far removed from the general population, and they too reported feeling like they were in a “hopeless vacuum,” “on the moon,” or “in a cave.” They also felt that corrections officers used incident reports to target deep-end prisoners. However, some of these deep-end prisoners felt relieved to be removed from the “prison politics” and “batch living” of the general population. Some even reported that less competition with other prisoners provided them with greater access to staff and resources.

This research shows how looking across borders helps us understand both the distinct approaches to managing people who have done serious harm and the human impact of policies that leave some prisoners swimming in the deep-end. Although Norway’s focus on reintegration and openness seems quite different from England & Wales’s focus on “managing unruly groups”, people in both types of deep-end confinement reported feeling isolated, surveilled, and often hopeless.

Six bronze bullets on top of a reflective surface, two fired and four not. Image by MasterTux from Pixabay is licensed under Pixabay license.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more women are killed by their current or former partners than by strangers, and the millions of women in physically abusive relationships are at even greater risk. Because most intimate partner homicides are committed with guns, many states have implemented firearm restrictions on persons convicted of domestic abuse.

Victims of domestic violence often seek emergency restraining orders to help protect themselves and their children. In some states, judges are legally required to order the confiscation of firearms when restraining order petitions contain allegations of physical abuse or threats. These statutes are designed to prevent perpetrators from escalating violence against their current or former partner because firearms are commonly used in intimate partner murders. Research has even shown that this mandatory firearm confiscation lowers homicide risk. Given the importance of mandatory confiscation, judges should be ordering the removal of firearms, right?

Not exactly. Recent research from Julie Kafka, Kathryn Moracco, Deanna Williams, and Claire Hoffman found that judges in North Carolina failed to order firearm confiscation in 61% of protective orders, even when physical violence and/or threats to kill were present. This runs against North Carolina’s mandatory firearm confiscation law in emergency restraining order hearings, and the researchers observed judges failing to verbally announce firearm restrictions during hearings in two-thirds of cases. In other words, judges pick and choose when to follow the law and enforce firearm restrictions for people accused of domestic violence; in most cases, they do not order confiscation. 

This research shows that leaving the confiscation of firearms up to judges maintains access to firearms even after allegations of physical abuse and threats. Kafka and colleagues suggest making confiscation the default or removing the “open-to-interpretation” language in the law. The researchers suggest that better training for judges, monitoring the whereabouts of guns in households with a history of intimate partner violence, and greater domestic rights education for victims could prevent further tragedy.

“Healthcare Justice March – October 26, 2013” by United Workers is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Immigration and healthcare are both major political issues: policies made about these issues have profound impacts on people’s lives. This is especially true for agricultural workers. According to the US Department of Agriculture, about half of the nation’s farmworkers are immigrants. This work is essential to making sure that we have food on our tables. Even in the best of times, farm work is a dangerous business. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this situation even worse. According to one study, farmworkers faced 4 times the risk of getting COVID as most people.

New research by Rebecca A. Schut and Courtney E. Boen examined the influence of state immigration policy on agricultural workers’ healthcare use. They also compared healthcare usage across various categories, such as race and legal immigration status. Examples of immigration policies that differ across states include to what extent immigrants have access to Medicaid and whether undocumented immigrants can get driver’s licenses.

Overall, Schut and Boen found that white people who did not identify as Latinx (the term used in the paper) and were born in the US used healthcare more often and reported the fewest barriers to care. Differences in state immigration policies, however, had a big impact on the healthcare usage of non-white Latinx agricultural workers with legal immigration status. In states with more restrictive immigration policies, these groups reported less healthcare use and more barriers to seeking care. 

Some examples of barriers to care include not having transportation or money, fearing job consequences if they took time off, believing providers didn’t understand their needs, and not feeling welcome to get care. By contrast, state policies had little effect on the healthcare usage of undocumented workers.

Although undocumented workers did report more barriers, including xenophobia, in states with more restrictive policies, their overall levels of healthcare usage didn’t change significantly. The researchers say that this could be because, due to surveillance and discrimination, undocumented people are already unlikely to use healthcare or other social services, instead relying on their social networks.

The authors argue that while these restrictive policies often target the undocumented, they also affect legal immigrants. In part, this is because they might reinforce stereotypes which associate undocumented legal status with non-white, Latinx immigrant farmworkers for whom English is not their first language. Essentially, Schut and Boen argue, Latinx people who were born in the US or have legal documentation  may be “lumped in” with undocumented people thanks to these stereotypes.

If we want to reduce health disparities, the researchers argue, we need to look at the unintended consequences of non-health related government policies on people’s healthcare usage–especially in the case of restrictive policies that have nativist origins and racialized implications.

A group of white moms dressed in winter coats stand in front of a fence near a sports court. One of them smiles at the camera, another holds a young girl wrapped in a blanket. “Moms at Playground” by Joe Shlabotnik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Monkey bars, children playing, parents socializing on the benches—these are components of any ordinary playground. Playgrounds provide great opportunities for both children and parents to socialize with neighbors while enjoying the outdoors. But in a new ethnographic study focusing on the behavior of mothers, Paula Paajanen and colleagues find that playgrounds can be a space where informal racial and ethnic segregation is (re)inforced. 

First and second generation immigrants from across Europe, Asia, and Africa make up 25% of the population of Helsinki. Paajanen and colleague’s spent 11 months observing two playgrounds and conducting interviews with mothers in two multi-ethnic neighborhoods in the Finnish capital. The research focused on how the interactions between mothers in these public playgrounds were shaped by their ethnic backgrounds. 

Paanjanen and colleague’s core finding is that social norms both produce and maintain informal ethnic segregation. Finnish mothers were often regular visitors to playgrounds, having a set daily schedule for when they take their kids to the playground. They also expected their kids to play outside most days, no matter the season. Because Finnish mothers frequented the playground and understood these norms, they were more likely to know the “best” time to take their kids to the playground to meet up with other mothers.

Immigrant mothers, on the other hand, didn’t tend to value regular outdoor activity in the same way. Instead, immigrant mothers gave their children more agency with their daily activities. Families went to the playground when the children wanted to go. Immigrant mothers were also less likely to encourage their kids to play outside during the cold winter months, unlike Finnish mothers. These differences in norms and practice made social contact between mothers of different ethnic groups a rare occasion. 

Other factors came into play too. For example, Finnish mothers were more likely to form a small “nuclear group” with other Finnish mothers who also frequented the playground. Rarely did mothers make relationships or engage with other parents outside of these groups who they didn’t already know, these outsiders were more likely to be immigrant mothers.  As one Finnish mother put it: “I rarely go to a playground and start to talk with someone completely unknown to me, whether a local Finn or someone with a foreign background.” Oftentimes mothers who didn’t know each other would avoid direct contact, even when in close proximity. As a result, immigrant mothers had little social interaction with fellow neighborhood moms.

The authors suggest that the social practices that occur on playgrounds are just one example of how everyday actions can regularly produce and reinforce ethnic segregation even when that isn’t the intention. It isn’t hard to imagine that fewer opportunities for social connection between Finnish and immigrant moms prevents familiarity, and even friendships, that could build opposition to the social inequalities and prejudices against migrants that persist in Finland.

A huge American flag covers much of the field at a Philadelphia Eagles game. “American Flagby Peter Miller is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Everyone gets quiet, removes their hats, and puts their hand over their hearts to sing. In center field, soldiers hold the American flag. Fighter jets fly over the stadium as the national anthem plays. Sports are not only about the games, they also provide a platform for the presentation and celebration of all manner of collective identities and values–and in the United States, the message is often about nationalism and the military. In new research, Chris Knoester and Evan Davis examine whether Americans  recognize this  messaging or not.

They used data from the National Sports and Society Survey (NSASS) which asked nearly four thousand Americans, “if they felt sports taught a love of country, respect for the military, competition as a way of life, or how to be Americans.” They found that the vast majority of respondents did not believe that sports teaches nationalistic or militaristic values even while most, 84%, overwhelmingly agreed that sport teaches competition as a way of life.  Given that the United States is one of the few countries in the world which plays the national anthem before sporting events and features armed forces in their ceremonies, their results are intriguing, to say the least. 

Interestingly, respondents who identified as male, heterosexual, Christian, and Republican were most likely to agree that sports teaches patriotic and militaristic values, with Black and Latinx respondents not far behind. In contrast, Americans who were white and college-educated were less likely to believe that sports taught any values. The authors suggest that this could be due to them viewing sports as truly neutral. 

Over the years, sport sociologists have demonstrated that sport  is a place where many Americans learn patriotic, nationalistic, and militaristic ideals. The fact that most Americans don’t believe this, and that those who do tend to be more conservative, less educated, or not white, raises some very important questions about the role of sport in contemporary American culture.