Monday, May 26, 2008

Rurality Then and Now, Here and There (Part II)

What I’ve learned about “rural” Amador, Calaveras and El Dorado counties while looking at properties there has challenged some of my assumptions about rurality. It has also led me to think more closely about the range of places popularly referred to as “rural,” as well as the varied bases for so labeling them. This question strikes me as particularly interesting at this political moment when we are seeing so much analysis of voting along the rural/urban axis. By what definition/standard, exactly, are pundits designating some voters “rural”?



Labels like rural and the companion term non-metro are linked to metrics such as size of population cluster. They may also reference population density and proximity to a metropolitan area, too. As used in common parlance, they also refer to social and cultural features.

As I’ve acknowledged before, my quintessential rural place is Newton County, Arkansas, where I grew up. I am well aware, of course, that many places which are fairly characterized as rural are neither as remote nor as sparsely populated as my little corner of Arkansas, which has a current population of about 8,600 and a population density of 10 persons/square mile. As such, Newton County is the least-densely populated county – and therefore arguably the “most rural” one—in a state popularly perceived as rural in its entirety. Newton County features other characteristics associated with rurality, including what I call attachment to place (meaning many families have lived there for several generations, which makes people reluctant to leave), lack of development, and poverty.

So, how are Amador, Calaveras, and El Dorado counties, which are popularly considered rural counties in California, fundamentally different from places considered rural in Arkansas? Their population densities are 60 per square mile (p/s/m), 39 p/s/m, and 91 p/s/m, respectively. (Coincidentally, Newton County (AR) and Amador County (CA) have virtually identical land areas, at just over 600 square miles each). In addition to being somewhat more densely populated, many residents of these California counties are “newcomers.” They’ve come from elsewhere – often from California’s metropolitan areas – looking for a different pace and style of life. Many of them are exurban, commuting or tele-commuting to the Bay area or Sacramento. While commuting times for Newton County residents (36 minutes one way) are similar to those faced by those living in these California counties (ranging from 29 to 35 minutes), more Newton County residents are likely commuting outside the county to find jobs in economies that are only slightly more developed and diversified, while these “rural” California residents are more likely commuting into metropolitan centers.

Still, the percentage of residents who, as of 2000, had moved to each of these counties in the past 5 years was remarkably similar. In each, the population (over the age of 5 years) coming from a different county (including those from different states) ranged from 23% (the low in Newton County, AR) to 29% (the high, in Amador County, CA). While a larger percentage of those moving into the California counties were from other California counties (3.5% for Calaveras County compared to 10% for Newton County), this is perhaps not surprising given the much greater population of California. So, the percentage of newcomers into all of these places was not significantly different, even though I tend to think of these California counties as less static and less associated with intergenerational attachment to place than rural Arkansas. In fact, I’ve been aware anecdotally of the significant numbers of newcomers to Newton County in recent years, but wouldn’t have set the number as high as the Census Bureau reports.
Other statistics on education and income also provide insights in the differences and similarities among the places. While only 70% of Newton County’s residents have a high school diploma or equivalent, the rates in Amador, Calaveras and El Dorado Counties range from 84-91%, the highest being El Dorado County, the most nearly metropolitan, the most exurban. The median household income in 1999 in Newton County was $24,756, while it was $41,022 in Calaveras County, $42,280 in Amador County, and $51,484 in El Dorado County. While 15.7% of families in Newton County lived below the poverty line, only 5% of those in El Dorado County did. The Amador and Calaveras County figures were 6.1% and 8.7%, respectively.

In terms of whether or not these places are “rural,” I also tend to think it matters that Arkansas is popularly perceived as a rural state while California is not? Does it mean that the threshold for a place being thought of as “rural” is lower (or higher, depending on how you express it) in California than in Arkansas. That is, if you are in the midst of a state popularly thought of as rural, then for a county to be seen as “rural” in that context requires a very small population cluster within a sparse population. People in Arkansas, for example, would not likely see Jackson (population 3,989), the seat of Amador County, as rural – and technically it is not, under the U.S. Census Bureau definition. For most Arkansans, population clusters of that size, particularly if they are county seats, are thought of as “cities.” (Plus, Jackson has a Lowe’s and many other amenities associated with micropolitan areas). For most Californians, on the other hand, it is thought of as “rural.”

Another way of expressing this is that what is perceived as “rural” or “urban” may be relative. So, in a state where the largest metropolitan statistical area (Los Angeles) is 17.7 million (the 2d largest metro area in the country), a population cluster of 4,000 seems rural. Also, part of what the Californians may be referring to with that label is less spatial (in terms of population density and physical distance from a city) than it is cultural. And perhaps these places are rural culturally, particularly in contrast with California’s several metropolises, which dominate our popular consciousness about the Golden State. At the same time, California does have counties that are much more rural by measures such as size of population clusters and population density; Mono, Inyo, Alpine, and Trinity counties come to mind.
Thinking just in terms of culture, all of Arkansas – including its two Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (Little Rock and the Fayetteveille-Springdale-Rogers conurbation) – is arguably rural. Certainly some of the more cosmopolitan residents (often non-native) of these urban areas might disagree (or, alternatively, agree heartily based on how they see the “locals”), but to some extent it is a fair characterization of the state. Plus, a much larger percentage of the state’s population live in rural places and in non-metro counties.

So what is rural? Perhaps, like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder.

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