Rural America is the new ‘inner city’

(Partial report from the Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2017)
By Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg

A Wall Street Journal analysis shows that since the 1990s, sparsely populated counties have replaced large cities as America’s most troubled areas by key measures of socioeconomic well-being—a decline that’s accelerating.

At the corner where East North Street meets North Cherry Street in the small Ohio town of Kenton, the Immaculate Conception Church keeps a handwritten record of major ceremonies. Over the last decade, according to these sacramental registries, the church has held twice as many funerals as baptisms.

In tiny communities like Kenton, an unprecedented shift is under way. Federal and other data show that in 2013, in the majority of sparsely populated U.S. counties, more people died than were born—the first time that’s happened since the dawn of universal birth registration in the 1930s.

For more than a century, rural towns sustained themselves, and often thrived, through a mix of agriculture and light manufacturing. Until recently, programs funded by counties and townships, combined with the charitable efforts of churches and community groups, provided a viable social safety net in lean times.

Starting in the 1980s, the nation’s basket cases were its urban areas—where a toxic stew of crime, drugs and suburban flight conspired to make large cities the slowest-growing and most troubled places.

Today, however, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows that by many key measures of socioeconomic well-being, those charts have flipped. In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas).

In fact, the total rural population—accounting for births, deaths and migration—has declined for five straight years.

In the 1980s, rural Americans faced fewer teen births and lower divorce rates than their urban counterparts. Now, their positions have flipped entirely.

The education and employment gaps between rural and urban areas have widened as rural areas have aged much faster than the rest of the country.

And even after adjusting for the aging population, rural areas have become markedly less healthy than America’s cities. In 1980, they had lower rates of heart disease and cancer. By 2014, the opposite was true.

“The gap is opening up and will continue to open up,” said Enrico Moretti, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the new urban-rural divide.

Just two decades ago, the onset of new technologies, in particular the internet, promised to boost the fortunes of rural areas by allowing more people to work from anywhere and freeing companies to expand and invest outside metropolitan areas. Those gains never materialized.

As jobs in manufacturing and agriculture continue to vanish, America’s heartland faces a larger, more existential crisis. Some economists now believe that a modern nation is richer when economic activity is concentrated in cities.