Rethinking Rural

Defining rural has traditionally required an understanding of those areas that are not urban – land and spaces that lack population density and/or proximity to population density. But the differences between rural communities’ composition, circumstances, and the ways in which they approach challenges and opportunities (economic development, education, technology adoption, community cohesion) have led to a rethinking of what rural truly encompasses, both now and in the future.

How It’s Developing

What is rural? For the U.S. Census Bureau, “rural” encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area – those urban areas can include Urbanized Areas (UAs) of 50,000 or more people or Urban Clusters (UCs) of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people.[1] The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) also sets standards for metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas, with metro areas considered as those including at least one urbanized areas of 50,000 population or more and micro areas considered as those including at least one urban cluster of less than 50,000 but at least 10,000; micropolitan counties as well as those counties that fall outside the metro- and micro- definition are considered non-metropolitan or rural.[2] Additionally, a rural-urban continuum developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sorts U.S. counties into nine different types, including two broad types of rural counties – connected rural counties, located adjacent to major metro areas, and isolated rural counties, located apart from metro areas, each with small (fewer than 2,500 people), medium (2,500 to 19,999 people), and large (more than 20,000 people) varieties based on population.[3]

While the majority of the U.S. population lives in urban counties, rural counties account for two-thirds of all counties in the United States and include around 51.[4] Population is essential to communities and while much of the discussion in the United States focuses on the growing concentration of people in urban centers, between 2010 and 2016 nearly 45% of rural counties (909 of 2,052) grew at a rate that exceeded the median national rate of growth and more than 150 rural counties had population growth of 5% or better.[5] However, taking a longer-term view of changes in population, a 2019 report from the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire found that nearly a third of rural counties in the United States have experienced protracted and significant population loss over the last century, with the out-migration of young people ages 20 - 24 contributing significantly to that loss.[6] While nearly one-third of rural counties experienced population growth over the last century, those counties were mostly clustered in the West, along the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, or near metropolitan counties.[7]

Changes in population should be considered in light of lingering concerns about internal migration patterns across the U.S. Between 2015 and 2016, just slightly more than one in ten Americans (11.2%) moved – and just 6.9% of Americans made shorter moves within the same county.[8] Since the 1980s, internal migration in the United States has been in decline across all demographic groups. Between 2001 and 2010, the demographic groups with the lowest rate of interstate migration were people with less than a high school diploma (1%) or nothing beyond a high school diploma (1.2%), while the migration rates for college-educated people were roughly twice that.[9] These pattern may be particularly concerning for rural communities. According to a 2018 survey of U.S. adults, the Pew Research Center found that 63% of respondents in rural areas indicated that they had lived in their community for eleven or more years (versus 45% for urban and 53% for suburban) and only 25% would move if given a change (versus 37% in urban and 34% in suburban).[10] For many rural, inland, and non-coastal communities, these migration patterns raise concern for the diversification of their populations, the possible movement of college-educated youth to coastal and southern states, and the aging of rural populations. Without vibrant migration across the country, small and rural communities may be faced with fewer opportunities for growth and very significant threats for losing their young and educated populations. At the same time, many rural community members may frame these patterns of limited movement and migration as a benefit, creating a rural community cohesion based on "deep roots" in a specific place.   

Beyond population, there are several drivers of change shaping the future of rural communities, including internet connectivity, education, economic development, and creation of place.

Broadband connectivity remains one of the central issues for the future of rural communities. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 24% of rural adults say access to high-speed internet is a major problem in their local community, compared to 13% in urban areas and 9% in the suburbs.[11] In many communities, citizens have prioritized connectivity, developing plans, seeking grant funding, providing municipally-run broadband service, and exploring innovative solutions.[12] In the United Kingdom, the government and the Church of England have formed a partnership to use rural church buildings and other properties to improve broadband, mobile, and Wi-Fi connectivity for local communities by placing wireless transmitters in church spires and towers as well as installing aerials, satellite dishes, and fiber cables in church buildings.[13] In the United States, communities are leveraging electric cooperatives to provide high speed internet to the homes of members.[14] Business partners have also proposed innovative solutions. Microsoft announced a Rural Airband Initiative to improve rural broadband access by using TV white spaces spectrum.[15] Loon, a spin-off from Google parent company Alphabet, has garnered attention for its plan to deploy a system of balloons to beam high-speed internet access to rural communities.[16] Facebook’s planned Athena project would have provided internet via satellite, offering broadband access to unserved and underserved areas throughout the world.[17]  

The challenge of connectivity carries implications for opportunities and innovation in education in rural communities. While some rural school districts may contend with outdated or limited technology, many communities are investing in technology by working with local businesses, seeking funding from the federal government, or asking voters to dedicate tax increases to school technology investment.[18] Schools in rural and small communities are facing the challenges of developing technological skills for a digital global economy. In a 2017 report, Leveling the Playing Field for Rural Students, the School Superintendent Association (AASA) and the Rural School and Community Trust advocated e-rate modernization and increasing efforts to integrate technology that can bridge distances between high-level content, instruction, and professional development and personalized educational opportunities for children.[19] 

Among the most pressing concerns for education and connectivity is the “homework gap,” the disparity in at-home broadband that hinders millions of students’ access to online learning, collaboration, and research tools. Rising concern for the "homework gap" has led many communities to explore options for extending broadband networks into communities, though those plans can be limited by federal control of the electromagnetic spectrum and the interests of telecommunications companies.[20]. In many communities, libraries, businesses, and community organizations play key roles in addressing the homework gap by making their internet services available to users. In 2018, Google announced an expansion of its Rolling Study Halls initiative to over 16 additional rural school districts, giving students access to Wi-Fi and Chromebooks on their bus rides before and after school to complete assignments or study for exams.[21]

As much as internet connectivity can transform students' experiences, it also increases the opportunities for classroom innovation. Many educators are leveraging technologies to collaborate across communities, creating online spaces for shared curricular materials, improved professional development networks, or even connections across students in shared courses or programs.[22] In communities with limited populations, creating virtual connections around education can be very important.

Physical access and proximity to educational opportunities has also become a concern in rural communities - a concern that stretches across the learning continuum from early childhood education to higher education. Some rural communities have addressed access to early-childhood education through the deployment of mobile pre-schools – by equipping vans or buses with educational materials, these mobile pre-schools bring early childhood education to parts of the community that might not otherwise have access.[23] Some states have moved to adopt online pre-schools or other online educational options for elementary and high school students. Utah-based nonprofit Waterford has expanded their Waterford Upstart online preschool program through private philanthropic funds as well as local, state, and federal funding – the program has expanded from Utah to other states including Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, North Carolina, Indiana, and South Carolina.[24] While these online program help expand access to education, even supplying computers and internet access to families without, critics contend that government funding should childrens' access to a quality, play-based education at brick-and-mortar schools that can also provide families with access to reliable childcare.[25]

Access and matriculation to higher education has become a growing concern for rural communities. According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, 59% of rural high-school graduates go to college the subsequent fall, a lower proportion than the 62% of urban and 67% of suburban high school graduates – and overall, 42% percent of people ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in all of higher education, but only 29% come from rural areas, compared to nearly 48% from cities.[26] These difference in participation in higher education may be part of a difference of context in rural communities, where young people had traditionally completed high school and taken jobs in their own communities, in agriculture, mining, or manufacturing – but many of those jobs have been automated, reduced, or relocated. Others note a skepticism for higher education, with few rural youth having parents who attained a college education, few models for career paths through college, and little connection to college campuses – according to a Pew Research Center analysis, fewer rural white men are convinced that colleges and universities have a role in providing necessary skills, with just 71% thinking they do, compared to 82% of urban and 84% of suburban white men.[27]. Physical proximity to higher education may also play a role. A 2018 Urban Institute report found that 41 million adults lack access to a physical university (there are either no colleges within 25 miles or just a single community college) and, of those, 3.1 million Americans also lack a suitable Internet connection needed for online education – these "education deserts" are particularly concerning for people living in rural and Western parts of the country, students who work full time or have children and depend on a near-by institution or internet access to complete online programs, and Native American populations who experience the dual barriers in higher proportions.[28] All of these concerns over access to higher education are compounded by issues of retention of college graduates in rural communities. 2019 research from the U.S. Federal Reserve found that adults with student loans were less likely to remain in rural areas than those without it and adults with the highest student loan balances were the most likely to migrate to cities, contributing to a “brain drain” of college-educated adults from rural areas to urban areas.[29]. Reinforcing some of those findings, a 2019 report (and interactive map) from the Social Capital Project of the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress found that the states that lost highly educated populations included many of those with the largest proportions of their populations living in rural areas, including those in the Great Plains, the Deep South, and more rural states in New England.[30]

The economic drivers in rural communities are changing in line with many other communities – aging populations, the decline of manufacturing, the consolidation and clustering of industry in specific cities or regions. Many rural communities actively work to encourage start-ups and new business development, finding the most success when they are able to leverage strong community partnerships, access to quality education, low costs of living, openness to remote and virtual teams, and access to nearby larger urban centers (proximity to airports, etc.).[31] While high-speed internet remains important for new and emerging companies, rural entrepreneurs note that they have been able work within existing networks and some start-ups even shift their focus to help expand access within the community.[32] Several states with larger proportions of populations living in rural communities have incentivized relocation. In 2019 a new Vermont law offered a $10,000 incentive for people who move to the state and work remotely for an out-of-state employer - the allocated stipend could be used to cover relocation expenses, co-working memberships, computers, internet, and other work-related expenses.[33] Co-working could be a significant driver for business development in rural and smaller communities. The number of co-working spaces is expected to increase over the next several years, with much of that growth happening outside of urban cores in areas that are near transportation hubs or major interstate arteries, allowing workers to have access to workspaces while still staying close to their homes and families.[34] Issues of geographic proximity and alignment have also been found to support economic development for rural communities. Micropolitan areas (geographic areas with one city of more than 10,000, but fewer than 50,000 people) have shown promise for reviving rural economies with a spillover effect when community assets work together – the 2018 Walton Family Foundation “Micropolitan Success Stories from the Heartland” report advocates for partnerships with universities and research institutions, alignment with community colleges and workforce development programs, maintaining awareness of entrepreneurial development, and creating a quality of place.[35]

Many institutes of higher education located in rural communities have taken on a new imperative to ensure their communities' continued success, leading to new initiatives and partnerships. Colleges in smaller communities may work to embed themselves in the community by renovating buildings or enhancing their physical footprint, partnering on business and economic development, or even offering scholarships to local residents.[36] Higher education institutions provide significant economic benefits to rural communities – producing research and technology for business development, bringing students into the local economy, and anchoring professors and administrators in the community – and create a distinct line between those that have access to higher ed anchor institutions and those that do not.[37] But the benefits of higher education institutions are not easily replicable – it can be hard to start a new or lure an existing institution, and satellite campuses may not provide the same benefits.[38]

Popular culture often depicts rural and small communities as close-knit with familiarity across residents. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 16% of respondents from rural areas indicated that they were “very attached” to their local community and 41% indicated they were “attached” – those numbers, however, were nearly identical to respondents from urban and suburban areas.[39] Where there might be differences in community cohesion are in familiarity with neighbors. The same 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that four-in-ten rural residents say they know all or most of their neighbors, compared with 24% in urban and 28% in suburban areas.[40] That familiarity may mask issues of racial and ethnic diversity in rural communities. A Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data found that just 21% of residents in rural areas identify as non-white – by contrast, 56% of residents in urban areas and 32% of residents in suburban areas identify as non-white.[41] Roughly seven-in-ten rural residents (69%) say all or most of their neighbors are the same race or ethnicity as them; significantly fewer suburban (53%) and urban (43%) adults say the same.[42] For areas that need to attract new residents as part of a successful rvitalization strategy, these issues of community cohesion may be a challenge - and something that civic and cultural institutions may work to address. 

Declines in population in some urban areas can pose challenges for rural communities’ ability to create a strong sense of place. A 2018 report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy identified the extent of housing vacancy across America (housing that is neither on the market, being held for future occupancy, nor being used seasonally), finding that small towns and rural communities have vacancy rates that are roughly double that of metropolitan areas – rural and small-town communities as a whole have a vacancy rate of nearly 18%, compared to just under 10% in metropolitan areas.[43] Vacancy may be especially concerning for local governments with limited resources to invest in demolition, maintenance, or revitalization – and vacancy can provide space for drug abuse, crime, and violence in communities. While housing vacancy usually excludes buildings that are used seasonally, rural gentrification, whereby individuals move into or purchase buildings in desirable locales as investments or seasonal homes, may compound some of the issues of housing vacancy, limiting the availability of housing for full-time rural residents.   

Societal preferences for retirement and aging may also affect rural communities’ composition and sense of place. According to a 2016 Brookings Institution publication, 23% of older adults (65 and older) lived in rural communities and 56% lived in suburban communities in the early 2000s – while retirees preferences to “age in place” shaped many of their decisions to stay in their homes or to retire to quieter rural or suburban communities, there has been a growing movement to “age in community,” seeing older adults move to more walkable environments that encourage time out of the house socializing.[44] Aging in community, however, is not exclusive to urban environments. Rural communities that invest in strategies to make their place a retirement destination (hospitals, interstate access, cultural amenities) have seen increased growth among retirees, especially as coastal regions in Florida and California have become more expensive.[45]

Why It Matters

While libraries emphasize access to a global body of information, many libraries in small and rural communities are emphasizing access to local information. As local news outlets cut back or consolidate service, library staff in small and rural communities have focused on collecting and promoting local information – about events, residents’ accomplishments, and local history or significance.[46] The need for strong sources for local information becomes more important in light of the further consolidation of other media formats, including local radio stations, which increasingly are sold to media conglomerates that provide remote service agreements feeding generalized content to stations across the country.[47]

Like many libraries, libraries in rural communities contend with an increasing array of social issues well beyond the traditional scope of information provision. For rural communities, however, those issues may be compounded by economic, demographic, geographic, and other factors. Several of the states with the largest proportion of their populations living in rural areas are among those with the highest probability of premature death among 20- to 55-year-olds, facing early deaths brought on by opioids, alcoholism, suicide, and kidney disease.[48] Feeding America’s 2017 Map the Meal Gap Report found that of the U.S. counties with the highest food insecurity, 76% are rural – and while food insecurity has trended downward, the problem is exacerbated by a limited hunger-relief infrastructure in rural areas where food pantries may be miles away and limited in number, under-prepared to respond to changes in demand.[49] And a 2017 study published in Science simulates the costs of global warming, modeling weather in every U.S. county during the 21st century and finding that states in the Southeast and Midwest will feel the greatest economic impact from climate change – the economic impact of the environmental crisis may further disparities between rural and other communities.[50] Libraries in rural communities may be called upon to work with their communities around these issues while at the same time competing for resources that have been stretched by these challenges.

Libraries continue to play an incredibly important role as place. That sense of place may become even more important as many researchers hone in on loneliness as a public health concern linked to higher rates of declining mobility, difficulty in performing routine daily activities, and decreased life expectancy.[51] With loneliness a concern across urban, suburban, and rural communities, health agencies, safety departments, and nonprofits are scaling up efforts to address loneliness.

Given the change and transformation that is happening in many rural communities, the role of library as partner will likely become even more important. As points of access and internet connectivity, the library has become an important player in providing service to the community. But efforts for economic revitalization and educational innovation show the opportunities for libraries to be players in cross-community strategies. These opportunities for partnerships may also compel public, academic, and school libraries in rural locations to work more closely together.

As education and learning shift to online environments, libraries in rural areas may become even more important as spaces for in-person learning and connection. They may also be challenged to contend with and support online learning opportunities like online preschools, online charter schools, and online high schools.

Examples from Libraries

Southern Adirondack Library System – Farm 2 Library Program
Working with the Fresh Food Collective and local food pantry Comfort Food Community, the Southern Adirondack Library System’s Farm 2 Library program brings fresh produce from local farms to patrons visiting three small libraries in rural counties of Upstate New York. The program helps reduce food waste while addressing the issues of food access and food insecurity in rural communities.

Is you library helping to address emerging issues in rural communities? Please let us know.

Notes and Resources

[1] “Urban and Rural.” United States Census Bureau Geography Program. Last revised August 30, 2018. Available from

[2] “Patterns of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Population Change:

2000 to 2010.” Steven G. Wilson et al. U.S. Census Bureau. 2012. Available from

[3] “The Divides Within, and Between, Urban and Rural America.” Richard Florida. CityLab. September 18, 2018. Available from

[4] “The Divides Within, and Between, Urban and Rural America.” Richard Florida. CityLab. September 18, 2018. Available from

[5] “The Divides Within, and Between, Urban and Rural America.” Richard Florida. CityLab. September 18, 2018. Available from

[6] “Long-term population loss affects one third of rural counties.” The Daily Yonder. February 7, 2019. Available from

[7] “Long-term population loss affects one third of rural counties.” The Daily Yonder. February 7, 2019. Available from

[8] “America the Stuck.” Richard Florida. City Lab. February 2, 2017. Available from

[9] “The States That College Graduates Are Most Likely to Leave.” Quoctrung Bui. The New York Times. November 22, 2016. Available from

[10] “What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities.” Kim Parker et al. Pew Research Center. May 22, 2018. Available from

[11] "About a quarter of rural Americans say access to high-speed internet is a major problem." Monica Anderson. Pew Research Center. September 10, 2018. Available from

[12] “Rural America Is Building Its Own Internet Because No One Else Will.” Kaleigh Rogers. Motherboard. August 29, 2017. Available from

[13] “UK government will use church spires to improve internet connectivity in rural areas.” They Ong. The Verge. February 19, 2018. Available from

[14] “Rural America Is Building High-Speed Internet the Same Way It Built Electricity in the 1930s.” Kaleigh Rogers. Motherboard. December 1, 2017. Available from

[15] “Microsoft wants to close the rural broadband gap with TV white spaces.” Tom Warren. The Verge. July 11, 2017. Available from

[16] "Alphabet to deploy balloon Internet in Kenya with Telkom in 2019." Duncan Miriri. Reuters. July 19, 2018. Available from

[17] "Facebook confirms it's working on a new internet satellite." Louise Matsakis. Wired. July 20, 2018. Available from

[18] “Not all towns are created equal, digitally.” Kyle Spencer. The Hechinger Report. January 22, 2017. Available from

[19] “Report outlines ways to improve learning opportunities for students in rural areas.” Linda Jacobson. Education Dive. November 17, 2017. Available from

[20] "Will a new push for free wireless internet help rural students get online?" Chris Berdik. The Hechinger Report. November 12, 2018. Available from

[21] “Google is equipping more rural school buses with Wi-Fi and Chromebooks.” Chris Welch. The Verge. April 2, 2018. Available from

[22] “Rural districts band together to promote innovation across schools.” Linda Jacobson. Education Dive. May 16, 2017. Available from

[23] "They started as an experiment in rural areas. Now, mobile preschools are rolling into metro Denver." Ann Schimke. Chalkbeat. November 12, 2018. Available from

[24] "Online preschool is winning more support, but is that a good thing?" Sarah Lindenfeld Hall. Mashable. July 9, 2019. Available from

[25] "Online preschool is winning more support, but is that a good thing?" Sarah Lindenfeld Hall. Mashable. July 9, 2019. Available from

[26] “The Rural Higher-Education Crisis.” Jon Marcus and Matt Krupnick. The Atlantic. September 27, 2019. Available from

[27] “The Rural Higher-Education Crisis.” Jon Marcus and Matt Krupnick. The Atlantic. September 27, 2019. Available from

[28] “Millions of Americans are living in higher-education deserts, report says.” Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. The Washington Post. February 2, 2018. Available from

[29] "Rural America's "brain drain": How student debt is emptying small towns." Aimee Picchi. CBS News. January 21, 2019. Available from

[30] "The Geography of Brain Drain in America." Richard Florida. CityLab. May 3, 2019. Available from

[31] “Rural tech startups see success across the US.” Alice Williams. Tech Crunch. August 1, 2016. Available from

[32] “Rural tech startups see success across the US.” Alice Williams. Tech Crunch. August 1, 2016. Available from

[33] "Vermont will pay you $10,000 to move there and work remotely." Corinne Purtill. Quartz. May 31, 2018. Available from

[34] “Why Co-Working Is Moving to the Suburbs.” Pooja Makhijani. CityLab. December 30, 2016. Available from

[35] “Why ‘micropolitan’ cities may be the key to rural resurgence.” Patrick Sisson. Curbed. October 30, 2018. Available from

[36] “Can a Small College Save Its Small Town?” Aaron M. Renn. Governing. March 2017. Available from

[37] “Could Small-Town Harvards Revive Rural Economies?” Alana Semuels. The Atlantic. May 2, 2017. Available from

[38] “Could Small-Town Harvards Revive Rural Economies?” Alana Semuels. The Atlantic. May 2, 2017. Available from

[39] “What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities.” Kim Parker et al. Pew Research Center. May 22, 2018. Available from

[40] “Key findings about American life in urban, suburban and rural areas.” Kristen Bialik. Pew Research Center. May 22, 2018. Available from

[41] “What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities.” Kim Parker et al. Pew Research Center. May 22, 2018. Available from

[42] “Key findings about American life in urban, suburban and rural areas.” Kristen Bialik. Pew Research Center. May 22, 2018. Available from

[43] "Vacancy: America’s Other Housing Crisis." Richard Florida. CityLab. July 27, 2018. Available from

[44] “The Future of Retirement Communities: Walkable and Urban.” John F. Wasik. The new York Times. October 14, 2016. Available from

[45] “The changing face of retirement: Apartment living, active lifestyles, and rural homes.” Patrick Sisson. Curbed. May 22, 2018. Available from

[46] "The Libraries Bringing Small-Town News Back to Life." David Beard, The Atlantic. January 28, 2019. Available from

[47] “America's rural radio stations are vanishing – and taking the country's soul with them.” Debbie Weingarten. The Guardian. June 6, 2019. Available from

[48] “The States Where People Die Young.” Olga Khazan. The Atlantic. April 10, 2018. Available from

[49] “Rural America Is Hungry.” Jessica Leigh Hester. City Lab. May 8, 2017. Available from

[50] "The American South Will Bear the Worst of Climate Change’s Costs." Robinson Meyer. The Atlantic. June 29, 2017. Available from

[51] “Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness.” Katie Hefner. The New York Times. September 5, 2016. Available from