Rural Weekly Insight

Retiring “rural”

Discussion over the last several months have unearthed one of my personal bugaboos: how we talk about “rural” in North Carolina.

Describing something as rural is similar to saying that a sick person has a cold.  At best, it communicates a broad range of symptoms without offering any precision. At worst, the description misdiagnoses an ailment and slows the attention to the root problem.

The rural-urban narrative in North Carolina is decades, arguably centuries, old. But with the shifts in legislative power over the last several election cycles, the 2010s version has its own arc. The peak was in 2015 as the General Assembly debated the bill over sales tax formulas and whether the formula should (d)evolve to favor rural counties over urban counties. In the last couple of months, the discussion has continued with the potential for continued shifts about economic development incentives and whether they should be restructured to help rural counties with employer recruitment.

On the sidelines, there have been some interesting contributions to the discussion. Before the legislative session began, the Urban Institute at UNC-Charlotte ran a thought-provoking piece about connecting the urban-suburban-rural divides through regionalism. About that same time, the Rural Center and the NC Metro Mayors Coalition wrote an op-ed for encouraging urban and rural cooperation.  Earlier this month, long-time political observer Tom Campbell wrote an op-ed about recent legislative attempts to change funding formulas for economic development incentives.

I am increasingly convinced that we need to start phasing out our use of the term “rural” to describe people and communities in our state. It is no longer an accurate frame and now verges on being counterproductive.

Please do not misunderstand. Whatever you mean by rural, I probably really like it and want to help it succeed. Any time I leave North Carolina for any extended period of time, I appreciate our distinctive blend of cultures and geographic identities. Despite some of our recent political fractures, we have knitted together a remarkable amalgam of economic engines, social customs and heritage, all tied together with a social common thread that we call a state. Our quilt is remarkable. It makes me and lots of others very proud and loyal to our statehood.  It makes me eager to try and explain it to my kids and their generation. Just do not oversimplify and talk about the binary of rural or urban.

What does rural mean anyway?

Google “what is rural,” and a top hit will be a page produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It says, “Many people have definitions for the term rural, but seldom are these rural definitions in agreement. For some, rural is a subjective state of mind. For others, rural is an objective quantitative measure.”  Translation: the feds really do not know what it means either.

USDA goes on to give some practical guidance about rural and says that it depends on why you ask.  In terms of statistics and federal programs, the USDA advises inquirers separately check how potentially applicable agencies define it.  The 1990 Census definition is different from the 2010 Census definition, which is different from the White House Office of Management of Budget (OMB) definition, which is different from the USDA Economic Research Service’s definition. In other words: it depends.

For a great interactive map chartering the evolution of rural from the U.S. Census Bureau’s, perspective, check out this story map.

North Carolina has instituted impressive Rural Center to develop programs and support structures that assist many of our citizens. A quick perusal of the Rural Center’s impact report demonstrates great needs across the state, as well as innovative solutions for trying to meet needs.

But why do we call it rural and what do they mean by the term? The Rural Center team took a useful step to redefine rural in 2015. They replaced their old definition—which defined rural as the 85 counties that had a population density of no more than 250 people per square mile in 2000—with a new, more nuanced one. They now group counties into three groups and differentiate between rural, suburban and urban identifications.

  • Rural counties: 80 counties with population densities below 250 people per square mile. These counties are home to a little over 4 million people and 41 percent of the state population. The center’s definition of a rural county remains unchanged.
  • Regional cities or suburban counties: 14 counties with average population densities between 250 and 750 people per square mile. This accounts for 2.4 million people, or 25 percent of the state population. The five formerly transitional rural counties join this classification.
  • Urban counties: Six counties with population densities between 750 and 1,933 people per square mile. This classification includes 3.3 million people and is 34 percent of the total state population.

This update helps, but it still seems like trying to cram a 1950s peg into a 21st century hole. Rural made sense when our economy was based on agriculture and the manufacturing of products that stem from agriculture, namely textiles and furniture. Today, with our economy more diverse and much less based on those drivers, our rural identity has become a foggy connection to our past selves. Even worse, it prevents us from fully evolving and growing.  

I have a numerous examples to demonstrate why this framework needs adjustment, but here is an obvious one. Wake County is the state’s largest county by population, home to two of the largest seven cities, and home to six additional towns of more than 20,000 people. If you surveyed everyone not in Wake County, I wager that few would call Wake County rural.  Neither the Rural Center nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture identify it as rural.

However, statewide, Wake County is ranked 21st in number of farms and is 28th in state farm receipts.  Also on the most farms list is Guilford County (home to the top 10 cities of Greensboro and High Point). Both of these counties are classified as urban, but they each have key aspects that are commonly associated with rural areas: communities with low population density and large amounts of land-based economic production (i.e., agriculture).

For an extended look at a variety of different frames for rural in North Carolina, check out EdNC and NCCPPR’s CEO Mebane Rash’s February article, “Rural Matters”.

What We Really Mean by Rural

Rural has come to have a negative meaning—not negative as in “bad” but negative as in the opposite of something else.  Rural has become code for areas of the state that are not feeling the growth and the opportunity experienced in other areas. Urban and suburban connote growth and the new economy leaving rural to mean “not urban.” 

In reality, many counties that we define as rural have less to do with other rural counties than they do with the so-called urban counties.  The road to continued economic growth in our coastal region is far different from that in our mountain region.  Where there are similarities, they are around struggles with economic drivers and infrastructure.

Calling them all rural lumps these areas and their millions of residents under a hollow, negative label rather than focusing on the positive opportunities they present. The labeling process, in turn, hurts their chances of success. Furthermore, legislation like Senate Bill 369 in 2015 and this session’s Senate Bill 660 pits these communities against neighboring, urban counties that might be better suited as partners than rivals.

What We Can Do

The ideal of rural is not going away.  It is hardwired into our operating system.  We can, however, choose to deemphasize it and become a little more precise about we talk about the people and the needs of the people the term is meant to represent. 

We can realize, as the above-referenced Urban Institute article suggests, that our identity is now increasingly defined by regional drivers. The hub-based model of economic development is clearly now dominant in North Carolina. As part of it, we need to recognize that strengths associated with lower population density, open space, and land-based economics are as important for Wake County as they are for Franklin County. The opposite is also true, the development and the success denser, faster growing areas like Raleigh and Cary runs to Franklin County and creates opportunities there as well.

As we think more regionally, rural then becomes a description of an earlier age, albeit one that yielded a proud heritage. Our future is in knitting together a new quilt: one that connects communities within regional constructs and then connects regions together to form a state identity. That is easier said than done, but it is something we must do to grow and prosper.


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Andrew Holton is a board member and contributor to the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

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