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Materials Management and Rural America, Part 1

September 25, 2018

With 81 percent of the US population now residing in urban areas, rural and small towns are no longer the cornerstones of the nation that they were considered to be, and the quality of life in many rural areas has declined. On the other hand, other rural areas continue to prosper. Why the different outcomes?

Living and working in a small town (Brattleboro VT, population 12,000) in a rural, small town state (Vermont has the second smallest population among states, just slightly larger that North Dakota), I greatly appreciate the benefits of less traffic, more nature, lower crime, etc. While there are no large metropolitan areas within a two-hour drive, we are nonetheless lucky to be awash in culture, art, music, local foods and more, both in our town and the many small-medium size communities a relatively short distance away.

According to a 2017 Wall Street Journal analysis of rural America, however, sparsely populated counties are now our country’s “most troubled areas.” The Journal reports that based upon a number of key measures of socioeconomic well-being, the decline in our rural and small communities is accelerating.

According to the Journal’s analysis, the indicators of decline for rural communities include:

  • The total rural population—that is, births, deaths and migration—has declined for five straight years.
  • Rural counties are now ranked “the worst” among the four major U.S. population groupings, 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.

But are the bleak conditions in rural areas and small communities as reported by the Journal as widespread as the article contends?

Defining Rural and Small Town America

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural-urban continuum categorizes the country’s 3,000 plus counties into nine different types of places, ranging from highly urbanized counties in large metropolitan areas to small, isolated rural counties. There are three types of urban counties, essentially divided into large metropolitan areas of more than 1 million people; medium-size metros of between 250,000 and 1 million people; and small metropolitan areas with populations under 250,000.

Rural counties are classified in two broad types, each with three categories. The first type includes more “connected” rural counties, located adjacent to major metro areas. Rural counties defined in the second classification are more isolated and generally located away from metro areas. As outlined by CityLab, within each of these classifications, rural counties are further categorized as large (more than 20,000 people, such as Litchfield, Connecticut), medium-size (2,500 to 19,999; for example, Hillsdale County, Michigan), and small (fewer than 2,500 people, like Elk County, Kansas).

Although most American residents live in urban areas, almost two-thirds of counties (and two-thirds of the nation’s landmass) are rural.

It’s not all Bad

CityLab observes that economic growth and opportunity are “not only uneven and unequal between urban and rural places; it is also uneven within them.” Indeed, some urban areas are growing and thriving, while others are on the decline. Similarly, some rural and small communities are flourishing.

CityLab offers a slightly less dismal picture of rural and small town America than did the Wall Street Journal. Overall, rural population has certainly declined, but some rural counties actually ranked in the top 10 percent for population growth. Indeed, according to CityLab, a quarter of all the counties around the US that had population growth of 10 percent or higher were rural.

Rightfully so, CityLab points out that population increase (or decline) is not necessarily an indicator of a healthy (or unhealthy) area. In a multi-part series to “explore the myths and realities of America’s urban-rural divide,” CityLab examines four other metrics: job creation, wage gains, college grads, and knowledge, professional, and creative workers.

Their key takeaway: Some rural areas are in decline; but some have economies in transition, and some rural areas are even prospering. The same can be said, in fact, of urban and metro areas of all sizes.

Exploring Materials Management in Rural and Small Communities

Largely through funding by the US Department of Agriculture, Rural Utilities Service, NERC has conducted many projects working in rural and small towns throughout much of NERC’s 11-member state region. During my almost 12-year tenure at NERC, I’ve had the privilege of managing a number of these projects.

I’ve driven through rural areas and small towns across the Northeast (including Delaware and Maryland). Some of my work takes me to communities that are thriving, and some of it is in communities that have definitely seen better days. I have discovered that the support for waste reduction, reuse, recycling, and food scrap/organics management varies widely from community to community. Some are resistant to new undertakings, while others embrace them.

Convincing town leaders can often be difficult, but in communities with more active citizens, the success of project implementation happens more often than not.

Over the next couple of NERC Blogs, I’ll explore the impact of some of NERC’s efforts, and other programs that have also benefited small and rural communities.

Whether urban, rural, or somewhere in between, all communities have a role in shaping America’s future. Accepting the worth and vitality of each community, and working to enhance and enrich all communities, can only benefit our entire nation. 


By Athena Lee Bradley

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