The “Rural” Challenge in “Rural Community”

Marvin Pohl, Area Agency on Aging

The composition of rural America today is predominantly elderly. Individuals 65 years and over constitute approximately 13.1% of the American population; however, 20% of the elderly live in non-metropolitan designated areas. In many of the non-metropolitan areas individuals over 65 years constitute greater than 13% of the population. All states have areas designated as rural using government classifications, with many states in the Midwest and West having large geographic areas designated as non-metropolitan. Two-thirds of the 3,142 counties in the United States are rural. In localities that are economically dependent on agriculture, the elderly continue to work the crops on their farms well into retirement age. Today, rural communities are experiencing farm consolidation, loss of forest land, shrinking population, lack of access to services and transportation, and limited planning capacity. (National Rural Health Association Policy Brief)

Having identified this framework for community, we next must address the “rural” challenge in the “rural community” consideration.

A few quick groundings are in order:

  1. All rural communities are not agriculturally-based. In fact, most are not.
  2. All rural communities are not suffering. Many are, but many are not.
  3. However, most of our nation’s persistent poverty counties are rural, and in our most disadvantaged rural communities, the indicators of need are equal to or greater than those experienced in our central cities.
  4. Some rural communities will be most sustainable, if “developed” from an economic standpoint, not much further.
  5. Many rural communities are in metropolitan areas.

Let’s explore these dynamics briefly. U.S. definitions of rural are imprecise. OMB designations of Core Based Statistical Areas are based on urban centers and the commuting relationship within those centers. ‘Metropolitan’ does not equate with ‘urban,’ and ‘non-metropolitan’ doesn’t equate with ‘rural.’ In fact, given these definitions, 51% of rural people live in metropolitan counties. Thus, precise definitions of rural and urban never work well for policy targeting, as you know. It is difficult to find a common middle ground that describes the continuum. In fact, the most “rural” states only account for under 7% of the rural population (Vermont, 62%; Maine, 60%; West Virginia, 54%; Mississippi, 51%; South Dakota,48%). Furthermore, five states that usually are viewed as urban account for over 25% of our nation’s rural people (Texas, 3.6 million; North Carolina, 3.2 mil.; Pennsylvania, 2.8 mil.; Ohio, 2.5 mil.; Michigan, 2.5 mil.). Additionally, nonmetropolitan America includes many urban centers. 60% of Non-metropolitan residents live in micro-politan areas, which include a regional center of 10,000 to 49,999 people. These urban clusters are logical hubs for the emergence of regional innovation strategies, encompassing workforce, ecosystem, health & human services, and retail service infrastructures.

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