While the idea of rural America may conjure up images of predominantly white, conservative populations, new research suggests that this perception could soon be changing.
Chuck Abbott of Successful Farming reported that while three-quarters of people currently living in rural America are white — a larger proportion than the roughly 6 in 10 for the nation overall — ongoing research shows that the rural population is becoming significantly more diverse.
“The rural America of the future will be increasingly diverse and not as politically conservative as many assume,” he said.
A recent Brookings Institution report back that theory up. “Contrary to the dominant narratives that use ‘rural’ as a synonym for ‘white,’ 24% of rural Americans were people of color in 2020,” said researchers D.W. Rowlands and Hanna Love. “While rural America is still less diverse than the nation as a whole (42.2% people of color), it is diversifying as well: The median rural county saw its population of color increase by 3.5 percentage points between 2010 and 2020.”
According to Abbott, data from Brookings and the U.S. Census revealed that “the rural population was relatively static from 2010 to 2020, increasing by just 164,000, or 0.3%. But the rural Hispanic population surged by nearly 1 million people, or 20%, in the past decade. Meanwhile, the number of whites declined by almost 5%, and the rural Black population fell by 6%.”
Researchers from the Housing Assistance Council, a national nonprofit that supports affordable housing efforts throughout rural America, recently told the Daily Yonder that “the overall rural population between 2010 and 2020 would have declined substantially if not for the growth in its Hispanic population.”
“Hispanics make up 10.4% of the rural population and Blacks make up 7.4%,” Abbott reported. “People of two or more races make up 4% of the rural population, and Native Americans are 2%, twice the national rate.”
Although racial diversity is increasing, as a whole, across rural America, there are still distinct regionalized variations in the Black, Latinx and Native American populations.
The Brookings report found that “rural counties in the South and the West are particularly racially and ethnically diverse — with a substantial number of rural areas in these regions majority or near-majority people of color.”
The Housing Assistance Center confirmed that information; based on their data, more than 85% of rural Blacks live in the South.
“A large number of Native Americans live on or near reservations and trust-lands in the Plains, Southwest and Alaska,” Abbott reported. “Nearly half of rural Hispanics live in four states: Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona.”
It’s not just jobs or families driving people to rural locations — or keeping them there. Rowlands and Love reported that “rural counties with recreation-focused economies were also more likely to gain population over the last decade, meaning the future of rural America is not only increasingly diverse but not as conservative as many would assume.”
Still, despite their increases in numbers, all the researchers say it may be a while until the stereotyped idea of who lives in rural America catches up with the reality of who is actually living there.
“Despite advances made through the civil rights movement, labor struggles and increased self-determination, the experiences and conditions of non-white rural residents and communities are often overlooked given their relatively small populations,” said researchers with the Housing Assistance Council.