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Urban-rural differences

We’ll take some time here to discuss some significant differences between urban and rural populations. Some may be surprising; others, not so much. We’ve already examined differences in health rates, but now we’ll look at demographic, social, economic and job-related differences.


  • The median age of a rural resident is 51; it’s 45 among the urban population.
  • More than 65% of rural residents live in the same state they were born in; the figure for urbans is 48%.


  • Educational attainment, measured by the percentage of population 25+ with a bachelors degree or more, is much higher in urban areas: Nearly 29% to 18%.
  • 29% of urbans have a bachelor degree; only 19.5% of rurals do.
  • The never-married population is higher in the cities than in rural areas: 32% to 27%.
  • The foreign-born population is three times higher in the cities than in rural areas: 13% to 4.3%.
  • More than 76% of rural children live in a married couple household; it’s only a little more than 67% for urbans.


  • Occupations in rural areas are greater in fields such as natural resources, construction, maintenance, production, transportation and material moving, while urban occupations are greater in management, business, science and the arts.
  • Urban residents tend to earn higher household incomes.
  • 81% of rurals own their home; only 64.6% of urbans do.
  • The median home value for rurals is a little more than $151,000; for urbans, it’s nearly $191,000.
  • More rural households report earnings from Social Security (35.8%) than in urban areas (28.9%).

These are some employment-related differences between urban and rural populations in the U.S.:

  • At the turn of the century, about one in five rural counties had a poverty rate higher than 20%; today, about one in three rural counties have similarly high rates of poverty. At the same time, the share or urban counties with pervasive poverty has risen from just under 7% to a tick under 16%.
  • About 15 years ago, 17% of Americans living in rural areas were employed in the manufacturing sector. Today, just 10% of rural workers are employed in manufacturing. If you look at counties across the United States that are dependent on a single industry, like manufacturing or mining or farming, those are disproportionally rurals.
  • The lack of jobs in rural America threatens to create a new generation of chronic poverty. In 1980, 70% of rural Americans living in poverty were working, albeit in low-wage jobs. Today, less than half of the rural poor are working.
  • Most new jobs aren’t in rural areas, which explains why rural residents believe the recession never ended. And what few new jobs pop up in rural areas are in the service sector, so Appalachian coal miners and Northwest loggers are now stocking shelves at the local Walmart.
  • Still, job gains in smaller towns and rural areas accelerated in 2017, and continued to build in early 2018. Rural employment grew at an annualized rate of 5.1% in the first quarter. Smaller metro areas grew 5.0%. That’s significantly larger than the 4.1% growth seen in large urban areas that recovered earlier from the Great Recession.
  • One sector that’s thriving in rural areas is e-commerce. Many places in America now depend almost entirely on e-commerce giants like Amazon, which has created the new “factory town.” The potential down side to this, of course, could be that the scores of warehousing jobs supporting many rural American towns are also among the most vulnerable to automation. As e-commerce and retail companies continue to invest in technologies to replace people in warehouses, thousands of workers in some of the country’s poorest towns could eventually be out of work.

One last area to compare urban and rural America is on insurance coverage and health care access :

Insurance coverage for rural residents is worse, as measured by these factors:

  • Private health insurance coverage among persons under age 65.
  • Private health insurance coverage obtained through the workplace among persons under age 65.
  • Medicaid coverage among persons under age 65.
  • No health insurance coverage among persons under age 65.

And health care access is worse in rural areas as measured by these factors:

  • No usual source of health care among children under age 18.
  • Delay or nonreceipt of needed medical care, nonreceipt of needed prescription drugs, or nonreceipt of needed dental care during the past 12 months due to cost.
  • No health care visits to an office or clinic within the past 12 months among children under age 18.
  • Health care visits to doctor offices, emergency departments, and home visits within the past 12 months.
  • Emergency department visits within the past 12 months among children under age 18.
  • Emergency department visits within the past 12 months among adults aged 18 and over.
  • Dental visits in the past year.
  • Hospital stays in the past year.

These are just some of the things we at Hirons have learned about working with the rural poor over the last 40 years.  If you’d like to better understand your rural audience and improve your outreach to them, you can learn more by calling us at 317.977.2206.

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