The real loser of the recession is rural America

November 13, 2013

There's been a lot of chatter in recent years about the ascendance of cities: They're more fertile places for innovation and productivity, have higher-skilled and more remunerative employment bases, and they've started to network with one another and the international world to trade in goods and services.

There's been less talk, however, about the flip side of that equation: the rural areas that are being left behind.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its annual survey of rural America, which puts the divergence in stark relief. Non-metropolitan areas experienced their first recorded period of population loss, and a decline in the labor force participation rate pushed unemployment down slightly (though the jobless rate surpassed the urban unemployment rate earlier this year). But even as the rest of the country entered a tepid recovery, and some rural areas gained jobs from the natural gas boom, net employment didn't budge rural regions:


The bifurcation adds another dimension to the widening political and social urban-rural divide.

The Department of Agriculture has a whole division devoted to rural issues, which is aimed at fixing the jobs problem through initiatives such as farming cooperatives and infrastructure development. But the long-term problem might be more structural in nature, as the USDA suggests in its finding that suburbanization is slowing down:

The housing mortgage crisis slowed suburban development and contributed to an historic shift within metro regions, with outlying metro counties now growing at a slower rate than central counties. Similarly, nonmetro counties adjacent to metro areas that had been growing rapidly from suburban development for decades declined in population for the first time as a group during 2010-12. This period may simply be an interruption in suburbanization or it could turn out to be the end of a major demographic regime.

It's important to note, though, that not all cities have recovered equally from the recession. A Pew report out Tuesday found that most cities still haven't fully regained their fiscal health as of 2011, which is closely linked to employment:

Screen Shot 2013-11-13 at 11.26.22 AM

So if you want a job, overall it's better to get out of Dodge. Just pick your urban destination carefully.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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