Falling behind: job growth and America’s urban-rural divide

  • America is enjoying 10 years of continuous economic growth, its longest streak ever.
  • This is good news for workers in urban areas, which have seen steady job growth across the country regardless of their economic vitality.
  • Rural areas, however, are lagging behind with employment barely growing over the past five years.

America’s economic story after the Great Recession has been one of slow yet steady recovery. Today the U.S. is enjoying a decade-long bull market, its longest streak of economic expansion ever.

This is heartening news for many American workers, but as a recent report from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution found, the narrative of a strong economy lifting all Americans is not so simple. Many parts of the country are indeed booming, but other regions are falling behind.

This is not a simple matter of the haves and have-nots, the researchers noted. In terms of job growth, the top-performing areas of the country are not outpacing the rest of the country. In fact, the fourth and middle quintiles of counties (ranked by economic vitality) have seen similar rates of employment growth as the top quintile from 2011 to 2018. Only the bottom quintile shows a significant gap in job growth.

The real source of the gap, the researchers conclude, is not found in specific regions of the country, but rather in whether those regions are urban or rural. Regardless of the area of the country, job growth in more urban counties has been spread fairly evenly regardless of their economic vitality ranking.

“Looking across the 760 counties that were at least 90 percent rural, almost half are in the bottom vitality quintile,” the researchers wrote. “Conversely, the most urban counties (252 counties that are 10 percent rural or less) are spread relatively evenly across the distribution.”

In one sense this is encouraging news for those in less economically vibrant regions, as long as they are in an urban setting. It means that even these areas are generally benefiting from America’s economic revival (rather than, say, job growth being restricted to booming metropolitan areas on the coasts).

Rural areas, however, are experiencing a markedly different trend.

“Rural counties—the majority of which were already struggling—seem to be increasingly left behind with employment barely growing over the last 5 years, lagging growth in urban areas by a substantial margin,” the researchers conclude.

Brookings has found a decreased flow of people from low-income to more vital counties in recent decades, as well as a mostly dismal track record of place-based policies to reverse regional inequalities, which only makes the trend more disconcerting and urgent for policymakers to address.

Image Credit: Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

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