Think ru­ral ar­eas are fall­ing be­hind? Think again.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - National - By Christo­pher In­gra­ham

The Wash­ing­ton Post

We’ve heard a lot about Amer­ica’s strug­gling ru­ral ar­eas in the past year. For­got­ten Amer­ica, where men and women lead hard­scrab­ble lives marked by poverty, lack of op­por­tu­nity, ad­dic­tion and de­spair.

Ru­ral Amer­ica, we’ve been told, is fall­ing be­hind: on every­thing from In­ter­net ac­cess to health care to busi­ness to youth.

Butre­cent Cen­sus Bureau data sug­gests that some of th­ese con­cerns, at least, may be over­stated - par­tic­u­larly when it comes to pay­checks. In­come fig­ures re­leased by the agency last week show that house­hold in­comes out­side the nation’s metro ar­eas are in­deed about 25 per­cent lower than in­comes in­side them. Last year, house­holds in­side metro ar­eas had a me­dian an­nual in­come of about $61,521, while house­holds out­side them earned just $45,830.

Here’s the thing, though: per­cent­age-wise, that gap be­tween metro and non-metro ar­eas is es­sen­tially un­changed over the last two decades. In 1996, for in­stance, non-metro house­holds ($26,249) earned about 74.6 per­cent as much as metro house­holds ($37,640). That ra­tio has fluc­tu­ated by a few per­cent­age points in ei­ther di­rec­tion over the years, but it re­mains vir­tu­ally the same (74.5 per­cent) to­day.

If you’re look­ing for an area of con­cern, it might be that non-metro in­comes are es­sen­tially flat since 2014, while metro in­comes have risen. If that con­tin­ues it could sig­nal a big prob­lem. But at the mo­ment it’s a three-year trend that takes us back to a his­tor­i­cal norm.

In 2014, for in­stance, non­metro house­holds earned 81 per­cent as much as metro house­holds, his­tor­i­cally an ab­nor­mally high ra­tio. That could sim­ply be be­cause the Cen­sus Bureau ad­justed its in­come method­ol­ogy that year. Note also that this is sur­vey data, sub­ject to mar­gins of er­ror, which may also play a role in small yearto-year changes (or lack thereof).

A word on def­i­ni­tions: In this re­port, the Cen­sus Bureau dif­fer­en­ti­ated be­tween metropoli­tan ar­eas, which are de­fined as hav­ing cen­tral ur­ban clus­ters sur­rounded by eco­nom­i­cally con­nected out­ly­ing ar­eas, and non-metro ar­eas, which in­clude all parts of the coun­try out­side of metro ar­eas.

Th­ese some­times get short­handed as “ur­ban” and “ru­ral” ar­eas, although that’s not 100 per­cent ac­cu­rate. Most metro ar­eas aren’t ex­clu­sively ur­ban - they con­tain sub­urbs and even ru­ral ar­eas where peo­ple live and com­mute to the cen­tral ur­ban core.

Still, the Cen­sus Bureau’s lat­est num­bers don’t ex­actly square with the re­lent­less nar­ra­tive of ru­ral de­cline. Yes, in­comes are lower out­side the big cities - but the cost of liv­ing is too. A big driver of this is hous­ing costs - hous­ing is nearly 20 per­cent less ex­pen­sive in ru­ral ar­eas than in ur­ban ones, ac­cord­ing to pre­vi­ous Cen­sus Bureau re­ports.

On the other hand, ru­ral house­holds tend to spend more on things like food and gas, ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of La­bor Statis­tics.

There’sno ques­tion that ru­ral ar­eas face their own unique set of chal­lenges, many of them a nat­u­ral con­se­quence of hav­ing small num­bers of peo­ple spread across very large ar­eas. You some­times have to drive a long way to see a doc­tor - over half of ru­ral coun­ties lack a hos­pi­tal with a ma­ter­nity ward - or to pur­chasegro­ceries.

But just as in the cities, peo­ple in ru­ral ar­eas tend to be greater than the sum of the chal­lenges they face (I speak from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence here, hav­ing moved to ru­ral Min­nesota in 2015). On the ques­tion of in­come, at least, ru­ral Amer­ica isn’t “fall­ing be­hind” - it, at least for now, is hold­ing steady.

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