Rural America may not have turned the corner yet. But it has its blinker lights on.
The nation’s rural communities are witnessing a bump in family incomes and a reduction in poverty levels, putting them in their best economic shape since before the 2007-2009 recession.
Those are the encouraging findings in the Department of Agriculture’s annual Rural America at a Glance report, which credits initiatives aimed at a 21st century economy as contributing to the rural resurgence.
“Rural America has begun a remarkable comeback. Key economic indicators continue to show that rural America is rebounding,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
About 46.2 million people, or 14 percent of the nation’s population, reside in areas that the government identifies as “rural.”
That’s a sizable bloc—analysts have noted that rural voters flexed their muscle in the 2016 presidential election—which leveled out in 2015 after years of decline, the report said.
At the same time, rural employment has risen modestly, including an increase of about 1.3 percent between 2013 and 2015, though it remains below pre-recession levels. And in 2015, the median household incomes in rural America rose by 3.4 percent.
Vilsack attributed part of the turnaround to targeted investments that have focused on production agriculture, the bio-based economy, local and regional food systems, and conservation and natural resources.
Those have helped many communities that he said “were ill-positioned to bounce back quickly.”
The report said it is inaccurate to think of rural America as a monolith—the heartland is economically diverse and the success or failure of many communities is often tied to the local economy, instead of the national one.
Median incomes are highest in areas of manufacturing and especially mining, where it tops $60,000 a year. Recreation and agriculture are at the low end of the scale, with rural median incomes of less than $15,000 and $30,000 a year, respectively.
“The relatively high earnings in manufacturing jobs explain the continued emphasis that many rural stakeholders place on attracting or retaining these jobs,” the report said.
Other findings about the state of rural America:
Population growth: All population growth is not equal. Counties that depend on farming have lost about 4 percent since 2000. Recreation counties have seen the most robust population growth since 2000, reflecting rising demand for recreational services, water views and open space.
At your service: The service sector is growing by leaps and bounds across the country, but only by bounds in rural America. Rural areas are more dependent on goods production. Farming, forestry, fishing, and mining account for more than 11 percent of rural earnings, but only 2 percent of urban earnings.
Back to work: Recent data show labor force participation—people working or seeking work—stabilizing in urban areas and increasing slightly in rural areas, which might suggest that economic recovery is beginning to draw people into the labor market.
Steven Johnson is a staff writer at NRECA.