Urban-Rural by the Numbers

This is the fourth post in a series about reducing the divide between urban and rural communities.

To bridge the gap between urban and rural areas, we first need to understand what sets these communities apart and where they have common ground. Below are a few key stats about urban and rural populations, economies and housing, and the different types of critical challenges these communities face.

Despite the vast amount of discussion about the urban-rural divide, there is actually little agreement about what these terms mean. The most common definitions are from the Census Bureau — “mostly urban,” “mostly rural” or “completely rural” — and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) — “metropolitan” or “non-metropolitan.”

The problem with these definitions is that more than half of the country’s rural population, as defined by the Census, lives in less densely populated parts of OMB metropolitan areas.

No matter how you slice it though, the clear majority of Americans live in urban areas. This share continues to grow as people move from rural to urban regions. Those who live in rural communities tend to be older (with an average age of 51 years, versus 46 in urban communities) and less educated (20 percent with a bachelor’s degree versus 29 percent in urban communities).

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Rural and urban unemployment rates have improved in recent years, but labor force participation — the share of the population working or seeking employment — remains below pre-recession levels. Specifically, the gap between urban (63 percent) and rural (59 percent) labor force participation is significant and largely attributed to an aging rural workforce. Additionally, most rural communities still have not recovered the jobs they lost during the recession.

However, not all rural communities are the same, and some are outpacing the growth of urban areas on key economic indicators. For example, many rural areas have higher rates of entrepreneurship, and the National League of Cities’ (NLC) own research found that businesses that export their goods and services are thriving in rural communities. Rural areas in many states are also making outsized contributions to their states’ GDP.




Despite their differences, affordable housing is a prevalent concern amongst both urban and rural communities. Across the U.S., only 46 units are available for every 100 extremely low-income renter households. The problem is more severe in cities, which typically have only 42 units per 100 low income renters. Rural area housing challenges are compounded by the fact that residents typically have lower median incomes and available affordable housing is often poor quality.

Rural residents have higher homeownership rates (81 percent) than urban residents (60 percent). Younger adults are both more likely to rent and more likely to live in urban areas. Rural areas have an older demographic, whom are both more likely to own their homes and age in place. Lack of mobility within rural housing markets contributes to an overall housing shortage in these communities, limiting business expansion and attraction opportunities.

Critical Challenges

Over the years, several other differences have become prominent between urban areas and their rural counterparts:

In a world dependent on online communications, broadband access remains a challenge in rural areas. In all states, broadband access is higher in urban areas than in rural ones. While 63 percent of rural Americans say they have a broadband internet connection at home, increased from 35 percent in 2007, there are still many challenges to improving accessibility.

The cost of providing services is the most significant hurdle. Even where broadband is available, it is often prohibitively expensive, leading to gaps not only in access, but also in adoption. Lack of internet has widespread consequences, particularly for rural economic and educational opportunities.

broadband@2x-100.jpgHealth and Opioids

There were more than 33,000 opioid-induced deaths in 2015, a fourfold increase from 2000. Although overall opioid mortality rates are higher in urban counties, mortality rates in rural areas have increased more quickly across all regions over the last two decades. Between 1999 and 2016, opioid death rates in rural areas have quadrupled among the 18 to 25 age group, and tripled for females. To treat and prevent opioid addiction, various healthcare services are required. Unfortunately, resources are more limited in rural areas.

The lack of improved access to healthcare services also has significant impacts on life expectancy. On average, from 2005-2009, the life expectancy in rural areas was 76.7, compared with 79.1 for urban dwellers, a gap that has widened significantly over the past 50 years. People living in rural areas are also more likely to die from the five leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer and stroke, than their urban counterparts. In 2014, approximately 71,000 deaths among rural residents were potentially preventable.

Despite the wide gulf between urban and rural communities, there are a number of challenges they share, from affordable housing to opioid addiction. These common challenges provide opportunities for shared solutions.

About the Author: Rose Kim is a research associate in NLC’s Center for City Solutions.