Our Shared Fate was the title of an Aspen Institute report from 2008, which argued that bridging the rural-urban divide created new opportunities for prosperity and equity. A Brookings Institution report published in the previous year, made the case that rural and urban areas are interdependent and that national prosperity requires both a healthy and sustainable rural economy and culture and vibrant, well-functioning cities and suburbs. This suggests that rural and urban communities should be looking for common cause…and removing obstacles that currently get in the way of meaningful dialogue. Yet a decade later, the longstanding debate about the future of rural America, and specifically, about an apparently deepening divide between rural and urban America continues unabated. This blog is the first of a two-part exploration of how this plays out in North Carolina.
A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation nationwide survey of cultural attitudes, published in June 2017, revealed stark differences between urban and rural Americans based on questions of culture and values. Although the Washington Post interpreted the survey findings as being driven largely by a perceived need among rural respondents to protect their rural identity and Christian values from immigration, urban influences, and government indifference rather than economic differences, any discussion about rural-urban interactions still comes down to economic opportunity (or lack of it).
Two points should be made by way of context. The first is that there are large-scale trends that impact urban and rural communities alike. Increasing use of technology is reducing the overall demand for labor, squeezing out jobs that once sustained the middle class such as skilled trades, and plant, process, and machine operators. Both high-skilled labor and low-skilled labor are in demand across all labor markets – emphasizing differences in wage and benefit levels between those with high-level education and skills and those without either. Companies source their production globally to keep costs down and this means fewer jobs in the United States. The result has been widespread economic dislocation in both urban and rural regions, and many communities are still hurting nearly a decade after the Great Recession. Soon-to-be published research by Michael Walden at North Carolina State University shows that these trends have had a particularly serious impact on middle class economic opportunity in North Carolina.
The second point is that there are factors that magnify these large trends and present particular challenges for rural areas. Low population densities and remoteness define rurality, and these reduce economies of scale, impose higher transportation costs, and create obstacles for efficient service delivery. Rural populations tend to be older because of outward migration of younger people or, in some places, an influx of pre-retirees making a lifestyle change. On average, rural residents have less formal education and lower-skill levels, earn lower incomes, and are less geographically mobile. That said, not all rural areas are the same. They differ markedly in their characteristics and prospects, determined by their distance from metropolitan centers, their inherent natural and cultural assets, and capacity of the local economy to offer job opportunities, particularly to younger and more educated and skilled workers.
There are many ways to distinguish urban places from rural, which makes it more challenging to understand the nature of rural-urban interaction. The most-used approach is the Office of Management & Budget’s somewhat misleading split between metropolitan (urban) and non-metropolitan (rural) based on measures of urbanization and economic ties. In North Carolina, this would indicate that there are 46 urban counties and 54 rural counties.
The Economic Research Service classifies all U.S. counties along an urban-rural continuum according to whether they are metropolitan or non-metropolitan, the size of their population, and if non-metropolitan, whether or not they are adjacent to a metropolitan county. Of the 100 counties in North Carolina, 46 are metropolitan, accounting for 77 percent of the state’s population, with a further 40 adjacent to a metropolitan county representing 20 percent of the population. The remaining 14 counties are classified as being mainly or completely rural. This suggests that North Carolina, with 97 percent of its population accessible to urban centers, is primarily an urban state.
On the other hand, the North Carolina Rural Center relies on population density to categorize counties as rural, regional city or suburban, or urban. Using this approach, 80 counties are rural, 14 are regional city or suburban, and only six are urban. Rural counties account for 41 percent of the state’s population, regional city and suburban counties 25 percent, and urban 34 percent. Thus, geographically, North Carolina would appear to be essentially rural, with concentrations of urban populations in a minority of counties.
So how should we describe North Carolina? Is it urban, rural, or an even split between rural and urban? For most families and businesses, it does not matter. Flows of people, capital, goods, and information continually blur political and geographic boundaries. People commute to work, make family visits, or take trips and vacations. Businesses source materials and labor across regions largely ignoring rural-urban boundaries, and sell their goods and materials to customers irrespective of their locations. Rural economies supply food, energy, workers, and environmental services while urban economies provide markets, capital, jobs, and specialized services. Both rural and urban communities offer each other a wealth of recreation and cultural opportunities.
Nevertheless, a strong perception of a deepening divide persists. Some ideas for bridging the divide will be discussed in a future blog.
 The Economic Research Service is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture