August 1, 2019

Challenges and Opportunity in Rural Communities: A Five-Part Series

Rural Census Tracts

Other posts in this series: 

​​​​​​Opportunity is out of reach for many individuals and families in our country’s rural communities. Families tend to have lower incomes and live in single-family homes. Broadband internet services are still not available in some rural communities. Many residents lack access to public transit and travel long distances to buy groceries. Youth lack access to advanced courses at their schools; in fact, the Center for Public Education reports an average rural school offers half as many advanced math courses as one located in an urban area.

Enterprise and its partners are helping rural communities respond to these challenges. Since 2010, Enterprise’s Rural and Native American Initiative has provided more than $13 million in Section 4 Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Program (Section 4) funding to 146 organizations working in rural and Native American communities. Grantees are leveraging funds to preserve subsidized rural properties, develop permanent supportive housing communities, and advance creative and innovative solutions to improve their communities and economies.

This blog post introduces a five-part series about rural communities. This series will highlight challenges experienced by rural residents and innovative solutions provided by our partners. Each post will focus on a dimension of Enterprise’s Opportunity360 framework: Housing Stability, Education, Health and Well-Being, Economic Security and Mobility. 

What is a rural community?

There are many different definitions of a rural community. The United States (U.S.) Census defines rural areas as all population, housing, and territory located outside of urban areas or clusters. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has several rural definitions based on commuting patterns, natural amenities, population and proximity to urban areas, and economic and social conditions. Some state governments, like Pennsylvania, have their own definitions. 

Throughout this series, our maps will use the U.S. Department of the Treasury Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund’s definition of a rural community. These areas include census tracts meeting at least one of the following criteria:

  1. The community is located outside of a metropolitan statistical area as designed by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. 
  2. The community is also located in a metropolitan statistical area but is outside of the metropolitan statistical area’s Urbanized Areas, designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural-Urban Commuting Area Code #1, and outside of tracts with a housing density of over 64 housing units per square mile. 

Where are rural communities located?

Except for the District of Columbia, rural communities are located across the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. In 2017, these areas included about 95 percent of the country’s land (or 7.8 million square miles). Because rural areas are sparsely populated, the number of residents living in these areas represents only about a quarter of the U.S. population or about 72.4 million people. 

The largest numbers of rural residents lived in Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, California, and Georgia in 2017. In fact, these five states included an estimated 17.8 million rural residents -- about a quarter of all those living in the rural U.S. Texas had the largest population of rural residents by far, with about 5.2 million people living there. For comparison, North Carolina, Ohio, and California each included around 3 - 3.5 million rural residents. 

While these states have large rural populations, in most cases these residents represented a relatively small share of their state’s total population. The exceptions are the 12 states of Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, North Dakota, South Dakota, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming. In these states, more than five out of every 10 residents call a rural community home. In Vermont, Wyoming, and Montana, more than 70 percent of residents live in rural areas. 

Who is living in rural communities? 

Although a majority of residents identify as white, racially and ethnically diverse communities exist across the rural U.S. Thousands of Hispanic and Latinx families live in 330 colonias, which are rural communities along the U.S.-Mexico border region that lack adequate water, sewer or decent housing.

About 14 percent of all Black and African American families live in rural areas, with many of them calling the deep South home. Native lands and reservations are also scattered across the countryside, and six in every 10 people identifying as Native American, Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander live in these rural places.

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