Focus on Small Cities

Why Focus on Small Cities?

While the United States is becoming increasingly urban, the number of Americans living in small cities remains more than seven times greater than the number living in large urban centers.[1] In this context, it is no wonder that iconic images from small cities and towns still resonate across American society: mom and pop shops, big games under Friday night lights, Main Street (rather than Wall Street) running through the heart of town, a slower pace of life and a focus on families and neighbors that provide a foundation upon which strong communities can be built.


Small town USA

This thriving sense of community and shared investment often sets America’s small cities and towns apart. As described in NLC’s landmark report, Municipal Leadership for Children and Families in Small and Mid-Sized Cities, smaller cities have unique advantages on which to build, including:

  • Personal relationships and a more manageable scale that can make it easier to convene stakeholders and work together;
  • A culture of helping neighbors and other local residents;
  • Frequent contact between local officials and the people they serve; and
  • A smaller scale of government that creates possibilities for responding more quickly to emerging needs with fewer bureaucratic hurdles to overcome.


Small cities and towns face challenges as well – inadequate resources, less ability to compete for federal and state funding, limited staff capacity and transportation barriers frequently dominate this list. Nonetheless, their sense of community is a powerful underlying force that can motivate key stakeholders and bring together leaders from local government, schools, businesses, faith- and community-based organizations and civic and neighborhood groups.

Though small and large cities differ in many ways, the challenges and accomplishments of cities highlighted in this resource are similar to those in communities across the nation. Small cities and large urban areas are alike in other ways, too. Children grow up with the hope of making their dreams a reality. Parents work hard to provide their families with a healthy and safe environment, hoping to give their children greater opportunities.

Municipal leaders in all cities want their communities to be a place where citizens receive a great education; a place where seeds to start a family are sown and then, with time, grow and take root in the community; and a place where work and businesses are driven for and by the community. Leaders understand that these qualities are the key ingredients to a prosperous community.

In many respects, the demographics of small cities also mirror national trends. Their residents are slightly more likely to have graduated from high school and to be employed, and they are just as likely to have health insurance coverage. However, one statistical difference does set small cities apart from the rest of the nation: the higher level of poverty among their young people.


In 2012, almost 15 percent of the country’s population was living below the poverty line. In small cities, this figure was closer to 20 percent. The statistics are bleaker for children under the age of 18.

Although the number of youth living in poverty nationwide was roughly the same as the overall number of people living in poverty, at 15.7 percent, the percent of youth living in poverty in small cities was significantly higher. Almost 27 percent of youth in small cities live in poverty. For instance, at least half of the youth living in the cities highlighted in this publication receive free and reduced meals in schools. Youth growing up in poverty are also likely to experience poor health and lower academic and economic outcomes.

Afterschool programs can help expand opportunity for young people and thereby combat intergenerational poverty. When the school day is over or school is out for the summer, poor children often go home hungry and are more likely to be in unsupervised environments. Afterschool programs provide children with opportunities to use their time in engaging, constructive and beneficial ways. They help to close the opportunity and achievement gaps that tend to separate impoverished children from others by providing literacy programs and other academic enrichments. They can also teach youth about the importance of physical activity and nutrition, equip them with technological skills, help prepare them for college and introduce them to career pathways.


Cities featured in this resource are coming together to use afterschool programs as a means to tackle these important issues. In doing so, they are fortifying their communities and building strong cultures of learning and collaboration.


[1] The Census Bureau identifies two types of urban areas: Urbanized Areas (UAs) and Urban Clusters (UCs). Urbanized areas have 50,000 or more people. Urban Clusters have at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people. “Rural” encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area. Similarly, NLC defines a “small city as one with 50,000 people or less.” However, the city of Brooklyn Park, Minn., which has a population of approximately 78,000 people, was included in this publication because of its creative partnership with the small neighboring city of Brooklyn Center, MInn.