Monday, October 11, 2021

New system categorizes rural census tracts by their assets; chief designer in online event Wednesday afternoon

Census tracts in nonmetropolitan counties, categorized (Urban Institute map; click on the image to enlarge it)
The federal government measures rurality in several ways, such as population, commuting destination, and market areas. But the nonprofit Urban Institute concluded that most federal definitions tend to focus on what rural areas don't have (i.e., population and/or proximity to cities) rather than reflecting the wide variety of rural resources and economic drivers. So it created a new system of categorizing rural America that aims to reflect such assets.

Most data analyses of rural areas rely on county-level data, which "can fall short in describing rural realities," so the new typology uses census tracts "that may have different assets and strengths than what overall county data might show," Corianne Scally, the lead researcher, told The Daily Yonder. "Our typology compares rural areas to one another and leaves out urban ones. This allows diverse rural realities to stand out more clearly."

At the same time, any such system of categorization has its pitfalls, "and a close look at some of the categorizations illustrates that," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. "Many rural census tracts are so small that categorizing them can be tricky. In this case, most of south-central Kentucky, where I grew up, is categorized as 'remote, energy-rich tracts' though they have no coal and most of their oil and gas production has faded in recent years."

Scally told Yonder Editor Tim Marema, "Even if we could perfectly capture the spirit of the framework nationally with numbers, they don’t provide the needed nuanced context of local histories and capacities someone would need to make well-informed decisions on investments and supports." Marema writes, "The new typology defines different groups of rural communities based on a wide range of physical, financial, environmental, and social assets. The hope is that the assets-based analysis will guide how public and private institutions can invest most effectively in rural communities." Essentially, the new system superimposes Purdue University's Community Capitals Framework divisions onto census tracts in nonmetropolitan counties (based on the U.S. Agriculture Department's rural-urban continuum). 

Scally will be among the speakers at an Urban Institute online event, “What Does It Take to Transform Persistent Rural Poverty into Opportunity?” from 2:30 to 3:30 ET Wednesday, Oct. 13.

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