Is rural America becoming a place apart? Institute director asks the question at conference on rural education

By Al Cross, Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
Rural Education Policy Conference, University of Kentucky, May 10, 2018

Good morning. As someone who grew up in one of America’s most rural places, and has spent the last 14 years paying close attention to rural America, I am glad to share with you an overview of it, as we begin thinking about the role of education in rural areas and the need for more research to guide it.

First, when you’re using the adjective “rural,” it’s important to say which definition you’re using. The federal government defines the term about 25 different ways. They range so widely that the Agriculture Department says "The share of the U.S. population considered rural ranges from 17 to 49 percent depending on the definition."

The easiest definition – and the one that forms the main basis for my studies and these remarks – is "non-metropolitan," outside a standard metropolitan statistical area.

A few years ago the Office of Management and Budget came up with a middle ground, the micropolitan area, which has core urban areas with populations of 10,000 to 50,000. They have about a fourth of the population that is rural, as defined by the Bureau of the Census.

Because the census defines urban and rural population by the density of census blocks, and metro areas are defined by county lines and commuting patterns, about half the rural population of the U.S. is in metro areas, if you use the Census Bureau definition.

Under that definition, the population of the United States in 2010 was 19 percent rural. The non-metropolitan population was 16 percent.

Both those percentages have been declining for more than a century, as our country has become more urban; but something new started happening in 2012. The total number of people living outside metropolitan areas went down. It went down again the next year, and the next, and the year after that, and the year after that. Each year from 2012 through 2016, fewer people lived in rural America than the year before, mainly because rural people moved to cities.

The rural population gained just a bit in 2017, but rural counties have still not regained the jobs they lost during the Great Recession. The physical evidence of that economic decline that can be seen all over rural America – in closed factories, vacant storefronts and streams of workers commuting to more urbanized places.

In many places, there is also a social and cultural decline – indicated by above-average drug use and divorces, poor health, increasing mortality rates among middle-aged whites, and a workforce that shrinks as disability rolls expand.

Beyond the data points, in much of rural America, there is a feeling that rural communities aren’t getting a fair shake from the economy, government and trade deals. There is a documented resentment of, and alienation from, urban elites -- including the news media -- and a feeling that we look down on rural people.

Those feelings were manifested in the 2016 presidential election.

The news-media exit poll found that the smaller a place’s population – grouped in nine types from the largest cities to isolated rural areas – the stronger its vote for Trump, with one very small exception that was within the margin of error. (NPR chart)

Dividing the exit-poll results three ways – urban, suburban and rural or non-metropolitan – Donald Trump won 62 percent of the rural vote and Hillary Clinton got only 34 percent. The actual percentage was probably more, because recent research has shown that the exit poll under-estimated his vote. In any case, the percentage was a record, and it continued a rural trend for Republican presidential candidates that goes back to the 2000 election, and arguably earlier.

The conventional wisdom about rural voters is that they are “values voters” and have trended Republican mainly because of social issues. There is much truth to that, but research on the last election has shown that economic issues gained fresh importance. Sure, the winning candidate talked about trade and regaining manufacturing jobs, but research shows that he tapped into a reservoir of resentment that was created by economic stress, and also by cultural stress. President Trump does exaggerate with regularity, but his rhetoric reflects the lived experiences in many communities, and polling shows that.

The most comprehensive, current public survey of the rural United States, broadly defined, was taken a year ago by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, partly in an effort to find factors that drove Trump’s victory. They used a broader definition for rural -- half of the six-point, urban-rural scale of the National Center for Health Statistics. They classified as “rural” any SMSA with fewer than 250,000 people. That covers about 24 percent of the population.

In the poll, 21 percent of rural respondents said lack of employment was the biggest problem facing their community. In the larger cities and their suburbs, only no more than 7 percent said that – one-third of the rural percentage.

When these rural residents were asked if they would encourage young people in their community to stay in the area or leave for more opportunity elsewhere, 59 percent said leave, and 32 percent said stay.

Those numbers reflect reality. (New York Times chart)

The Post reporters on the poll wrote, “As rural areas and small towns have fallen farther behind larger cities in wages and employment, many of the most ambitious young residents packed up and left, too. In 1980, the median age of people in small towns and big cities almost matched. Today, the median age in small towns is about 41 years—five years above the median in big cities.”

That, of course, is driven by what has long been called the “brain drain” from rural to urban. It seems to be getting worse, but it’s more than that. The shift of population and jobs from rural to urban is reflected by, and partly caused by, a reduced number of employers in rural areas.

During the recovery, 59 percent of U.S. counties had a net loss of business establishments; in the previous two recoveries, only 37 percent and 17 percent had fewer businesses. That shows a big rural-urban disparity, because when you count counties, you’re mainly counting rural.

The big shift of employers and jobs from rural to urban really shows in this chart. In the recent recovery, counties with fewer than 100,000 people accounted for only 19 percent of net business creation, and only 9 percent of net job creation. In the previous recoveries, they accounted for 20 and 27 percent. And the number of businesses in those counties dropped 1 percent from 2010 to 2014.

This loss of business establishments is more than just a set of data points. It eats away at the civic capital in small towns where local business people provide leadership and innovation. That is a problem in rural areas like south-central Kentucky, part of non-coal Appalachia, where one lawyer and civic leader said this:
In addition to this hollowing out of the rural merchant class, look at what’s happening to some industries that are fundamental to the rural economy: Agricultural prices are low, in many cases below the cost of production, and the consolidation of farms into larger operations has led to population loss and more stratification by economic class. The coal industry has been crippled by cheap natural gas from horizontal hydraulic fracturing, and by environmental regulations. Those regulations may be reversed, but most of their impact is not likely to be. Meanwhile, the gas boom is so big, there is a glut.

There’s another reason rural America’s workforce has been shrinking: more and more workers are getting disability benefits.Of the 102 counties where more than one in six working-age adults are on federal disability programs, 100 of them are rural.

This is, in large measure, a reflection of lower education levels in rural America. If you have been making a living with the strength of your legs and back, or the dexterity of your arms and hands, and one of those body parts goes bad, and you don’t have a high-school diploma – or in many cases, even if you do – you aren’t very employable.

Non-economic woes
The ills of rural America are not merely economic. We see rising mortality rates among middle-aged white people who haven’t been to college -- often from opioid overdoses, alcohol and suicide, recently dubbed the “deaths of despair.”

The broad problems of rural America were starkly documented by The Wall Street Journal in a May 2017 article titled “Rural America is the new ‘inner city’.” They wrote: “By many key measures of socioeconomic well-being, those charts have flipped. In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas). ”

And the Journal offered up a series of graphic that really tell the story of rural America’s problems.

Saying rural America has gone from being the nation’s breadbasket to a basket case is exaggeration and stereotyping, but there is much truth in it.

We need to remember that in their efforts to get out of that basket, rural places have a disadvantage that inner cities do not: the isolation that defines rurality. It’s an isolation not just from urban places, but among rural communities. That means the condition of their civic infrastructure is more critical, and one part of that infrastructure, the news media, has become less helpful.

Rural places have become more isolated from metropolitan news media. Twenty years ago, newspapers in cities like Atlanta, Louisville and Omaha circulated in every county in their states and beyond, and regularly covered counties with no strong commercial tie to the newspaper’s home city. That pretty much stopped when the digital revolution destroyed newspapers’ business model and the Great Recession forced even more contractions of circulation and coverage. These former statewide newspapers still have audiences in the far reaches of their states, but it pales in comparison to the prior print audience. And with little audience in those far reaches, there’s little interest in doing stories there.

The death of statewide newspapering has left the coverage of public policy to smaller dailies, which have fewer resources to do the job, and to television stations – which have the resources but mostly lack the willingness to pay for real accountability journalism. As a result, I think rural America is more poorly informed about state and regional issues. On national issues, the proliferation of opinion-dominated news media has reduced the audience for fact-dominated media. People naturally gravitate to sources of information that confirm their beliefs.

That being said, my primary clientele – rural newspapers – remain the healthiest part of the traditional news business. But that’s relative, and many of them are hurting because their communities are hurting.


The news and the data about rural America make me ask: Is it becoming a place apart from the rest of America? It seems to think so. As America diversifies and rural America largely does not, rural residents feel a growing cultural and social difference with their city cousins.

The Post-Kaiser poll found that 68 percent of Americans it defined as rural said they have different values than people in big cities, and 41 percent said those values are very different. Among those the poll defined as urban, 48 percent said their values are different from those in rural areas and small towns, and only 18 percent said they were very different.

When cultural differences get political, there is often resentment. The poll found that 56 percent of rural voters said “The federal government does more to help people living in and around large cities, while 37 percent feel they treat both urban and rural areas equally.” The government has many programs aimed at rural areas, but the poll found rural voters are evenly split, three ways, on whether “Federal government programs aimed at improving people’s standard of living generally make things worse, make things better or don’t have much impact one way or the other.”

The feeling that government is biased in favor of urban elites has been most comprehensively described in Wisconsin, a state that University of Wisconsin political scientist Katherine Cramer studied closely in her 2015 book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, the conservative Republican governor who survived a recall election and ran briefly for president.

In conversations with small groups of people all over Wisconsin, Kathy Cramer discerned what she calls “rural consciousness,” a rural identity that goes beyond place, to “a sense that decision-makers routinely ignore rural places and fail to give rural communities their fair share of resources, as well as a sense that rural folks are fundamentally different from urbanites in terms of lifestyles, value and work ethic.”

The 2016 election continued a trend, seen since 1976, of more “landslide counties,” defined as those won by 20 percentage points or more. This trend was defined in a book by Bill Bishop, a fellow who grew up in Kentucky: The Big Sort: Why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart. It’s about the creation of homogenous communities by people who choose to live near people with similar beliefs, and how that polarizes our democracy.

I think that phenomenon, coupled with the declining percentage of rural population, poses a special risk for rural areas and rural education.

In the coming decades, rural areas are likely to keep most of their influence in Congress, because the Senate has a built-in advantage for less populated states.

But state legislative seats are based solely on population, and that means rural areas are losing power. A great example is the state to our south. Tennessee was once one of the more rural states; now it’s only 22 percent rural, and it’s one of the legislatures where members have formed a Rural Caucus to protect and advance their interests.

In many if not most of those districts, the greatest interest and/or the greatest need is education. And I think that goes beyond the questions of funding, technology, teacher quality and other issues we plan to explore the next two days.

Daily Yonder founding editors win Smith Award; crusading weekly editor wins Gish Award

LEXINGTON, Ky., Oct. 8, 2014 -- A couple who created a new sense of community in rural America with an online news site, and a crusading weekly editor who set an example that drew national attention, are the winners of this year’s top awards from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky.

The awards are the Al Smith Award for public service in community journalism by a Kentuckian, which is co-sponsored by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Tom and Pat Gish Award for the courage, tenacity and integrity that are so often needed to do good rural journalism.

The Smith Award goes to Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery, husband and wife of La Grange, Texas, and natives of Louisville. For several years recently they were co-editors of the Daily Yonder, the online news site of the Center for Rural Strategies, which Institute Director Al Cross says has “created a much greater sense of community among rural people in a diverse, changing rural America.”

The Gish Award goes posthumously to Landon Wills, who was publisher of the McLean County News in Calhoun from 1946 to 1972, and editor for almost all that time. He was the subject of a national television documentary in 1963 after advocating for civil rights and community development, and against religious prejudice and political mendacity.

Giving the awards to three Kentucky natives is “especially fitting” in a year when the Institute is celebrating its 10th anniversary and the University is celebrating 100 years of journalism at UK, said Dr. Beth Barnes, director of the UK School of Journalism and Telecommunications. Also this year, the school’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The awards will be presented at an Anniversary and Awards Dinner at the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort in Lexington Thursday, Nov. 13. Invitations for the event will be mailed soon. For more information call 859-257-3744. Here are details about the awards, the winners and the Institute:

The Tom and Pat Gish Award, to the late Landon Wills

For more than 50 years, Tom and Pat Gish, right, published The Mountain Eagle at Whitesburg, Ky., and became nationally known for their battles with coal operators and corrupt politicians, and the firebombing of their newspaper office by a Whitesburg policeman. Tom Gish, who died in 2008, and Pat Gish, who died this year, were the first recipients of the award.

This year’s winner, the late Landon Wills, was a native of Henry County and a World War II veteran who bought the nearly defunct McLean County News in 1946. He hit the ground running, helping start ultimately successful campaigns to build a hospital, attract factories and get a navigation and flood-control dam on the Green River; taking strong issue with the "neo-isolationist" views of a highly respected jurist who had returned to the county of his birth to make a speech; and endorsing the civil-rights plank in the 1948 Democratic Party platform in the face of plenty of “Dixiecrats” in Western Kentucky.

From the start, he was a watchdog on taxes and schools; on his front page, he ran a notice about the county schools’ annual financial statement and editorials pointed out that the Kentucky law requiring property to be assessed at fair cash value was being routinely violated, cheating the state's school systems. Seventeen years later, the state’s highest court agreed.

Wills’s news columns were almost exclusively local, but he believed the editorial page was open to any subject, and he often opined on state and national issues. His endorsement of John F. Kennedy for president in 1960 riled readers who were Democrats but didn’t want a Catholic president, and prompted concern for, and opposition to, him in some local churches.

In the 1963 ABC-TV documentary, “Vanishing Breed,” which gave Wills credit for the hospital and two factories, some citizens said he made them mad, one example being front-page play for a police raid on a Livermore brothel, but they said he was good for the county. “He probes old sores and he makes new ones,” one said. “Some of us would like to beat the hell out of him, frankly. And yet again, we can’t help but think he deserves a pat on the back. Frankly with all my disagreement with Landon, I think he’s an excellent newspaper editor.”

One of his six sons, Clyde Wills, recalled recently that the paper produced “few financial rewards. The conservative people in rural McLean County had very different opinions than my father. While there was never a general business boycott, there were businesses that did not advertise because of the liberal editorials.”

Ilene Wills taught school to supplement her husband’s income. “It is no stretch to say that Landon was ahead of his time,” wrote Frankfort lawyer and Calhoun native William Ayer, one of the nominators for the award. “He engaged in journalism the way it was meant to be. . . . He never took a position on any local issue until he had thought the issue through, discussed it with his wife and staff at the paper and, ultimately, questioned his own position.” But one thing that “never seemed to enter the equation,” Ayer wrote, was whether a position would cost the paper money.

Landon Wills went to work for a War on Poverty program and turned over editorship of the paper to Clyde Wills in 1968. It was sold in the early 1970s to Walt Dear, then of Henderson, who also nominated him, calling him “the miracle man of weekly newspapering in Kentucky.”

The Al Smith Award, to Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery

The award is named for Albert P. Smith Jr., right, who published newspapers in rural Kentucky and was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force for creation of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, headed its national advisory board for many years, and remains on the board as chairman emeritus.

Bill Bishop, a member of the advisory board, and his wife Julie Ardery “have devoted their careers to producing quality community journalism that has improved the civic discourse in Kentucky and far beyond,” wrote board member Dee Davis of Whitesburg, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, in his nomination. The center publishes the Daily Yonder, the rural news site that the couple co-edited from 2005 to 2012.

Bishop worked for the Gishes at The Mountain Eagle while Ardery edited Jim Garland’s Welcome the Traveler Home, a University Press of Kentucky memoir of the coal-mine wars in Bell and Harlan counties in the 1930s. They bought a 100-year-old weekly newspaper, the Bastrop County Times in Smithville, Texas, with proceeds from the sale of a newsletter Bishop had created about strip-mine regulation under the 1977 federal law. Davis wrote, “The two made the paper so lively, innovative and popular that the competing paper eventually bought them out,” and they were the subjects of a feature story in Washington Journalism Review.

Bishop joined the Lexington Herald-Leader as an editorial writer and columnist, focusing on economic and community development issues; meanwhile, Ardery earned a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Kentucky and wrote a book that explored the emergence of the contemporary folk-art economy in the state through the life of Edgar Tolson, a woodcarver from Wolfe County, Kentucky.

They returned to Texas, where Bishop worked for the Austin American-Statesman and wrote The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, a book about voluntary political segregation that was favorably reviewed in major publications from The Economist to The New York Times and has earned frequent compliments from former president Bill Clinton.

Bishop and Ardery designed and ran the Daily Yonder, which explores and explains the relevance of rural America and helps create a stronger community of rural interests at a time when rural America’s population is steadily declining. They assembled a stable of writers, helped create polling of rural voters, and changed the national conversation about rural issues by pointing out such disparities as rural America’s disproportionate share of military casualties. They continue to contribute to the site from their home in La Grange, Texas, where they are preparing a book proposal that follows up on The Big Sort and attend the polka dances that fill halls and church grounds in Central Texas.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues 

The 10-year-old Institute was piloted in 2002-04 with grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, after organizational work by Al Smith and the late Rudy Abramson, a longtime Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. It gained a permanent home at the University of Kentucky in 2004 with grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, and the hiring of Al Cross as director.

Cross, who had been the longtime political writer for The Courier-Journal and still writes columns for the Louisville newspaper, is now a tenured associate professor in the Extension Title series, reflecting his self-styled role as “extension agent for rural journalists.” The institute’s mission is to help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities with strong reporting and commentary, especially on broad issues that have a local impact but few good local sources. It conducts workshops and research, offers consultations, and publishes The Rural Blog, a daily digest of events, trends, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, at, and Kentucky Health News at with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. Its website is

The institute’s national advisory board is chaired by Lois Mateus, a former Brown-Forman Corp. executive who is a regular contributor to The Harrodsburg Herald in her Kentucky hometown. The Anniversary and Awards Dinner of the Institute, at which the Tom and Pat Gish and Al Smith awards will be presented, is also being held to boost the Institute’s endowment and guarantee its ability to continue to and expand its work. For information, call the Institute at 859-257-3744 or email Cross at

Let's cover poverty and the people in it

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

With the national poverty rate at 15 percent, higher than at any time since 1993, and millions more Americans near the poverty line, you'd think there would be more coverage of them and the problems they face each day. For whatever reason, there is not, and a group of journalists with some experience in covering the subject got together over the weekend to talk about improving coverage of it.

The conference at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., was called "The New American Poverty: Reporting the Recession's Impact," but it included a lots of basics and history on the subject -- and some useful comments at the start, from poverty researchers and some folks who run programs for the poor and disadvantaged in Lexington and Rockbridge County.

Jeri Schaff, services director for the Valley Program for Aging Services, said she couldn't recall ever seeing a news story addressing the daily struggle faced by many old people (hers don't like the "seniors" label, she said), especially in rural areas. The coverage of poverty tends to focus on cities, she said.

"Rural poverty is very different than urban poverty," said Suzanne Sheridan, director of the Rockbridge Area Free Clinic. The big difference, she said in an interview, is lack of resources: supermarkets, public transportation, health care, even a reliable water supply.

W & L economics professor Arthur Goldsmith explained various anti-poverty programs and said the 1996 welfare reforms appear to have caused an "enormous increase" in Social Security disability claims. That appears to be a rural phenomenon; as The Rural Blog reported in December 2011, the rate of disability benefits paid to working-age adults was 80 percent higher than the national rate in 2009. Hotbeds for the phenomenon are Central Appalachia, the Ozarks and the Black Belt.