The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We need a smarter narrative about rural America

A combine unloads a hopper full of harvested soybeans into a tractor trailer on a farm in Fairfield County, Ohio in 2013. (Ty Wright/Bloomberg News)

We've heard a lot about America's struggling rural areas in the past year. Forgotten America, where men and women lead hardscrabble lives marked by poverty, lack of opportunity, addiction and despair.

Rural America, we've been told, is falling behind: on everything from Internet access to health care to business to youth.

But recent Census Bureau data suggests that some of these concerns, at least, may be overstated — particularly when it comes to paychecks. Income figures released by the agency this week show that household incomes outside the nation's metro areas are indeed about 25 percent lower than incomes inside them. Last year, households inside metro areas had a median annual income of about $61,521, while households outside them earned just $45,830.

Here's the thing, though: percentage-wise, that gap between metro and non-metro areas is essentially unchanged over the last two decades. In 1996, for instance, non-metro households ($28,089) earned about 74.6 percent as much as metro households ($37,640). That ratio has fluctuated by a few percentage points in either direction over the years, but it remains virtually the same (74.5 percent) today.

If you're looking for an area of concern in the chart above, it might be that non-metro incomes are essentially flat since 2014, while metro incomes have risen. If that continues it could signal a big problem. But at the moment it's a three-year trend that takes us back to a historical norm.

In 2014, for instance, non-metro households earned 81 percent as much as metro households, historically an abnormally high ratio. That could simply be because the Census Bureau adjusted its income methodology that year. Note also that this is survey data, subject to margins of error, which may also play a role in small year-to-year changes (or lack thereof).

A word on definitions: In this report, the Census Bureau differentiated between metropolitan areas, which are defined as having central urban clusters surrounded by economically connected outlying areas, and non-metro areas, which include all parts of the country outside of metro areas.

These sometimes get shorthanded as “urban” and “rural” areas, although that's not 100 percent accurate. Most metro areas aren't exclusively urban — they contain suburbs and even rural areas where people live and commute to the central urban core.

Still, the Census Bureau's latest numbers don't exactly square with the relentless narrative of rural decline. Yes, incomes are lower outside the big cities — but the cost of living is too. A big driver of this is housing costs — housing is nearly 20 percent less expensive in rural areas than in urban ones, according to previous Census Bureau reports.

On the other hand, rural households tend to spend more on things like food and gas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There's no question that rural areas face their own unique set of challenges, many of them a natural consequence of having small numbers of people spread across very large areas. You sometimes have to drive a long way to see a doctor — over half of rural counties lack a hospital with a maternity ward — or to purchase groceries.

But just as in the cities, people in rural areas tend to be greater than the sum of the challenges they face (I speak from personal experience here, having moved to rural Minnesota in 2015). On the question of income, at least, rural America isn't “falling behind” — it, at least for now, is holding steady.

Correction: A previous version of this article gave an incorrect figure for the 1996 earnings of non-metro households.