A Rural Perspective

Dee Davis and Tim Marema, Center for Rural Strategies

The sense of the world must lie outside the world.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

The American image of rurality is a complex and contradictory amalgam of myth, wish, and fact woven into an idea that is simultaneously fundamental and antithetical to a national identity. Statistically, we have not been a rural people for the better part of a century. Today, the rural population of approximately 56.2 million people accounts for only one in five Americans. But rurality lingers in our national DNA. Our nation's founders lived in and imagined a rural nation. They wrote a constitution and set up a government that reflected rural sensibilities and values. Rural America with its frontier antecedents has long been considered more than place. It is both a storehouse of our values and the point of origin for our national mythology. The countryside remains a source of essential American ideas and archetypal figures that transcend historic reality and become powerful and inspiring figures in our collective imagination.

But the rural America of our imagination is at odds with reality. The size of the rural population is shrinking dramatically in proportion to the overall U.S. population. Rural children who don't move to the city as adults are the exception. The rural economy and its traditional occupations have been transformed by powerful forces beyond residents' control. Suburban sprawl is obliterating the landscape and local cultures of many rural areas. Chronic poverty grips generations of residents of large rural regions. Yet the nation continues to point to rural places as a source of such values as economic independence, just rewards for hard work, community cohesion, strong families, close ties to the land, and others.

There exists a disconnection between the perception of rural life and its reality. This disconnection means the nation “can impart virtually any values we want” to rural people and places, writes scholar David Danbom. Like a complex sacred text or an abstract painting, rural America is open to interpretation. As a result, people as diverse as Jefferson, Thoreau, counter-culture commune builders, and the Aryan Nation have found inspiration there. “Whatever the reality of rural America, the idea of rural America will always be popular with major segments of the population because, in the last analysis, it is America's field of dreams,” Danbom writes.1 

If rural America is open for interpretation, one must ask whether the people with the most at stake—rural people themselves—are represented in the debate. This is fertile ground for artists, journalists, media producers, and others who help define and interpret contemporary culture. If misperceptions about rural America are holding back a policy agenda that more accurately reflects the needs of rural people, then a case can be made that those who care about rural America must work to redefine those perceptions.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Cirrcuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

— Emily Dickinson

Rural Myths
The nation's rural identity, formed during the colonial and early republic periods, has been supplemented by urban sensibilities over time, but it has never been replaced. Even rural people themselves view their own communities, to some extent, through the lens of myth, and they certainly view them through the preconceptions beamed to them from urban media. For a clearer perspective, it is helpful to identify the enduring archetypes that define the nation's concept of rural.

The American ideal, after all, is that everyone should be as much alike as possible.

— James Baldwin

Myth: There is a single rural America.
Though in considering rural issues we may think of rural America as if it were of a whole cloth, it more closely resembles a patchwork. Important differences exist in economic structures, race and ethnicity, and cultures.

The sheer size of rural America argues against a dominant type of rural experience. The United States is the fourth largest nation in land area, and most of its territory is rural. It covers seven time zones from east to west and reaches latitudes north of Sweden and south of Egypt. If rural America were a separate nation, its population would comprise the world's twenty-third largest country, following the United Kingdom, France, and Italy.

The myth of the countryside as uniformly idyllic may stem in part from our natural tendency to extrapolate from what we know. And most of us (both urban and rural) have firsthand experience. Metropolitan and non-metropolitan residents alike take vacations in rural areas. Policymakers such as business leaders and directors of large public institutions frequent parts of rural America that have been shaped to accommodate the recreational choices of the elite: winter sports in places like Aspen, Jackson Hole, or Park City; oceanfront hideaways like those along the coast of Maine or the Pacific Northwest; and inland getaway destinations such as Palm Springs, the Sierras, or the Adirondacks. Imagining a serene rural existence is easier to do if you are summering on Cape Cod and wintering in Vail than if you are spending August in the Mississippi Delta and February in the northern Great Plains.

Race and ethnicity
Another important fact about rural America is that there is more racial and cultural diversity than is often supposed. Although rural areas have greater racial homogeneity than metropolitan ones, the myth of rural homogeneity masks underlying diversity among the people who have historically lived in the American countryside. Significant cultural traditions of diverse American populations have their roots in the rural experience. The music, food, visual arts, folk tales, crafts, and other cultural manifestations of distinct rural groups have contributed profoundly to the larger American culture. The absence of these influences would not just have left a hole in American culture but would have resulted in an entirely different culture altogether.

The rural roots of various American ethnic and cultural groups are still reflected in the population patterns of the rural landscape. Nearly half the nonwhite population that lives in rural America is clustered in areas where minorities make up one-third or more of a county's population.2 These population clusters continue to reflect the unique historical circumstances each group faced as they established themselves in the United States or found themselves there by force or annexation.

  • Rural Native American population clusters are located in the Four Corners region, Oklahoma, the Northern Great Plains, and most of Alaska. Except in Alaska, these clusters are linked to the reservation system.3 
  • The rural counties in which African Americans make up one-third or more of the population are located in the lowland South: the traditional plantation areas of the Mississippi Delta, Deep South, and Mid-Atlantic states.4 
  • Hispanic population clusters are located in or adjacent to the Rio Grande Valley from southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, California's Imperial and Central valleys, and the southern High Plains of Texas and New Mexico.5 

People of color constituted about 17 percent of the rural population in 1997, compared with about 25 percent of the overall U.S. population. A disproportionately large number of Native Americans—nearly half of the overall Native American population—live in rural areas. (Rural Americans comprise approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population; therefore, a group would be proportionately represented in the rural population if 20 percent of that group's population were rural.) The rural white population is roughly proportional, with 23 percent of whites living in rural areas. The remaining major ethnic and racial groups are underrepresented in rural areas. Fifteen percent of African Americans, 9 percent of Hispanics, and 5 percent of Asians and Pacific Islanders are rural.6 

In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is.

— Gertrude Stein

Somewhere is better than anywhere.

— Flannery O'Connor

Myth: Isolation alone makes rural places and people different.
One notion that looms large is that rural America is geographically isolated from metropolitan areas and that this geographic isolation leads, in turn, to other forms of exclusion from mainstream life. In this view, rural communities are intellectually deprived, outside the circulation of current thought, and distanced from culture, economics, and opportunity. Conversely, others view the countryside as a place removed from the troubles and stresses of contemporary living. The reality is more complex.

Rural America is by definition geographically separate from urban areas. But isolation is in the eye of the beholder. About two-thirds of rural inhabitants live close enough to a metropolitan area to commute there for employment. Even greater numbers participate extensively in the marketplace of urban centers through regular shopping forays. Eighty percent of the mileage of the U.S. highway system lies in rural areas.7 Geographic separation may make it more difficult for country families to shop the Mall of America, but geography alone does not necessarily prevent rural people from seeing a first-run movie, visiting a medical specialist, or finding the latest fashions at the Gap. Whether they can pay for those goods and services, of course, is another matter.

All but the remotest areas of the United States have access to the media behemoths that define, package, and deliver news of the moment, popular culture of the hour, and advertising for the ages. Rural areas were the first to widely use cable and satellite television. Long before Lands' End, Amazon.com, and 800 telephone numbers, rural people participated in national commerce by purchasing mail-order goods. And pioneers did not necessarily head to the frontier to escape the national economy. Many went to find a niche in it by producing some commodity—grain, beef, coal, gold, saw logs, sugar cane—that could be converted to cash in a regional or national market. Native Americans, who were forced from their lands onto reservations, are an exception, as were African American agricultural slaves.

Nor does geography isolate rural America from the social and physical ills that beset metropolitan areas. Rural communities have the highest incidence of drug and alcohol addiction in the nation compared with suburban and inner-city addiction rates.8 We may perceive rural America as a bucolic place where people work hard, live clean, drink pure water, and fill their lungs with clean air, but heart disease, Type II diabetes, and other chronic illnesses related to environment and lifestyle are epidemic in many rural places.

Geographic separation—if not absolute isolation—does make rural life different. As a group, Native Americans are the most affected by this geographic separation. The counties in which Native Americans comprise 30 percent or more of the population are more thinly populated than the rest of rural America. They are also more likely to be geographically remote from urban areas. Only 14 percent of counties with large numbers of Native Americans are adjacent to a metropolitan area, in contrast to 42 percent of all rural counties. Less than half of these Native American counties have a city of 2,500 or more, compared with two-thirds nationally.

Another demographic group hard hit by rural travel distances are those who live in poverty, about one in four rural residents. More than half of these residents do not own a car. Cars are not a luxury in rural communities—only 20 percent of rural Americans have access to public transportation.9 

Unfortunately, it is in economics that we find a consistent pattern in the lives of many rural residents. Nearly one-quarter of residents of rural counties live in persistent poverty.10 Although rural poverty rates declined in the 1990s, rural areas did not participate evenly in the economic expansion of the 1990s. In fact, poor rural residents became relatively worse off compared with their urban counterparts during the period. Rural poverty rates exceed urban rates in every region of the United States except the Northeast.11 Rural child poverty rates are 25 percent higher than inner-city rates. All but five of the nation's 200 most persistently poor counties are rural.12 

Telecommunications technology offers a possible strategy for mediating geographic isolation by connecting rural residents to the job centers in nearby and distant cities, but the actuality has not yet equaled the promise. High-speed Internet service remains expensive or unavailable for most rural residents. Telecommunications centers are beginning to dot the rural landscape, but most offer only entry-level employment possibilities at call centers and data input stations.13 

A Rural Perspective

It is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison, 1785

Farm policy, although it's complex, can be explained. What it can't be is believed. No cheating spouse, no teen with a wrecked family car, no mayor of Washington, D.C., videotaped in flagrante delicto has ever come up with anything as farfetched as U.S. farm policy.

— P.J. O'Rourke

Myth: Rural Americans are mostly farmers.
Most strikingly, what rural Americans are not is farmers. Only about 600,000 American farms and ranches earn $40,000 or more per year. Only 1.78 percent of rural residents earn their primary living from the farm. Nonetheless, a recent national survey by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation showed an overwhelming perception across the country that agriculture is the dominant industry of rural America.14 

For an example of the tenacity of the agrarian myth, consider the 2002 federal farm bill. This $190 billion piece of legislation was sold to the American public not only as a means to support U.S. food production but as a primary way to alleviate rural economic problems. Legislators spoke in passionate terms of how the bill would sustain rural economies and how the nation needed to make sure farming was a career option for the next generation. In political terms, this conjures images of the family farmer, a symbol that taps deeply and powerfully into American historical identity. And it disguises the fact that other sectors of the American economy—manufacturing and service, for example—have a far greater impact on the economic health of most rural communities than does farming.

While family farmers certainly still exist, their numbers plummeted throughout most of the twentieth century, like the numbers of miners, loggers, and other workers whose occupations have fallen away because of changes in the economy and technology. The number of American farmers peaked at about 6.6 million in the 1930s and has declined an average of 88,000 every year for seven decades. Fewer than 2 million Americans (about 2 percent) earn $1,000 or more a year from farming.15  In contrast, nearly two-thirds of rural Americans work in the service and manufacturing sectors. Through the use of technology, fewer and fewer farmers produce more crops than ever before. This technology has also increased the capitalization costs of farming beyond the means of all but a few. The way rural people earn their living has been forever altered. America is not the land of Jefferson's small-scale farmer.

...his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The enormity of the problems confronting rural America discourages an enthusiastic response. Rural Americans are poorer, sicker, less well educated, and more likely to be addicted than their metropolitan counterparts. Government programs, such as the farm bill, too frequently serve a small portion of rural Americans while being touted as a solution for the many.

Still, rural America has a bounty of assets from which to fashion a spirited response. Its population numbers in the millions, and it occupies an enormous landmass, replete with vital resources. The mythology of rural America—its inaccuracy notwithstanding—remains powerful. Rural residents, if they find the opportunity, can speak with authenticity about their experiences to a nation that continues to place a rural theme at the center of its cultural and political ideals. Rural Americans live in a place that holds special meaning for the overall population. Most Americans see themselves as no more than a generation or two from their own rural beginnings. They understand that the yearnings of country people informed the dream of creating a noble nation, one that would be inclusive and fair. And if the sustaining myth of America is that it is the land of opportunity, then certainly Americans can fully understand the gravity of dreams deferred and opportunities denied.

Although the current communications framework may not encourage rural discourse, those systems are not impenetrable. Creative responses that build on the mythic popularity of rural places but provide a greater understanding of the reality of contemporary rural life can perhaps make inroads.

—Dee Davis is president and Tim Marema is a vice president of the
Center for Rural Strategies, with headquarters in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

1.   David B. Danbom. “Why Americans Value Rural Life.” Rural Development Perspectives. Vol. 12, No. 1. USDA Economic Research Center 17-18.
2.   B. Cromartie. “Minority Counties Are Geographically Clustered.” Rural Conditions and Trends. Vol. 9. No. 2. U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. 1999. 14-19.
3.   Cromartie. 16.
4.   Cromartie. 15.
5.   Cromartie. 17.
6.   “Rural by the Numbers: Demographics.” Rural Policy Research Institute. World Wide Web: www.rupri.org/policyres/rnumbers/demopop/index.html
7.   William P. Browne. The Failure of National Rural Policy: Institutions and Interests. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. 2002. 8.
8.   Browne. 19.
9.   Browne. 19.
10.  Browne. 19.
11.  U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. “Rural Income, Poverty, and Welfare.” World Wide Web: www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/IncomePovertyWelfare/
12.  Save the Children. America's Forgotten Children: Child Poverty in Rural America. 2002. 18.
13.  National Telecommunications Infrastructure Administration.
14.  Perceptions of Rural America. W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 2002.
15.  Browne. 7.