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Report sees gains for rural America

Rural America's economy grew stronger in 2015, reflecting declining unemployment and rising earnings and population, a new government study shows.

But the report only partially captures the agricultural sector's struggles, the report's author says.

Rural America at a Glance, 2016 Edition, was prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. The annual report highlights the most recent data for social and economic conditions in rural conditions, focusing on unemployment, population, poverty and income trends, among other things.

Lorin Kusmin, who wrote the report, says the data reveals economic trends "have been positive. Continuing employment growth and unemployment decline both in rural and urban areas. We're also seeing improvements in earnings and poverty in 2015 to a greater extent than we had before, again both in rural and urban areas."

But, the report focuses only on part of the agricultural sector and can't use 2015 data, which isn't available yet, for farming-dependent counties, he says.

Much of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and western Minnesota consists of farming-dependent counties, according to information in the report.

As a result, the report doesn't fully reflect the poor crop prices that have hurt the Upper Midwest ag economy. But it does note that "trends in agricultural prices have had a disportionate impact in farming-dependent counties."

The report also isn't able to tap into relatively recent statistics that reflect the effect of lower petroleum prices on oil-producing countries, including ones in western North Dakota's Oil Patch, Kusmin says.

Rural, for purposes of the report, is considered non-metropolitan areas. Metropolitan areas, in turn, are counties that include a core urban area of 50,000 or more. One example: North Dakota's Cass County and the adjacent Clay County in Minnesota, which include the sister cities of Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., are a metropolitan area.

"Much of the data we look at is available at the county level, and so a lot of the analysis depends on being able to sort them at the county level," Kusmin says.

Big-picture takeaways

Among the report's conclusions:

• Rural population in 2015 stood at 46.2 million, or 14 percent of U.S. residents in 72 percent of the nation's land area.

• The rural population, which fell from 2010 to 2014, rose slightly.

• Rural employment is rising slowly, with urban employment rising more than twice as rapidly. That disparity reflects the older-than-average age of rural residents, Kusmin says.

• Rural median earnings are rising in rural areas, but remain lower than in metropolitan areas. That's at least partly offset by lower living costs, especially for housing, in rural areas, Kusmin says.

• Rural poverty fell in 2015, but remains higher than it was before the Great Recession, or the U.S. economic downturn that began in the late 2000s.

No surprise to some

The report also contains a conclusion that likely will be worrisome, though not surprising, to many Upper Midwest residents

"Farming-dependent counties have seen population drop 4 percent since 2002, despite generally robust demand for U.S. agricultural products. This decline continues a long-term trend, reflecting rising labor productivity in the farm sector, as well as the lack of other economic opportunities and amenities in many of these often remote counties."

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