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article number 595
article date 09-27-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Meanings of Rural — A Third of Our Nation, 1970
by James Copp, Economic Research Service, USDA

From the 1970 USDA Yearbook.

* * *

WE SPEAK of “Rural America.” What do we mean? Do we mean the country? The farms? Farm people? The answer seems obvious.

But do we include small towns? If so, how small? Do we include people living in the country who don’t farm? Do we include suburbanites? Is “rural” a place or a way of thinking and acting?

Answers to the last questions are not as obvious. Answering these questions has become increasingly troublesome over time, as distinctions between country and city have shaded over into each other. Yet, the questions continue to be asked and the answers are still important for public policy and the welfare of millions of citizens.

In the next few paragraphs I will attempt to define the word rural and explain why I feel the rural distinction is important and necessary for our country, despite the fact that we are living in an urban-industrial society.

Historically, the word rural has referred to the country. It comes from the Latin word rus, ruris, meaning open land. The origin of the word rural is closely akin to the words room and rustic.

The word rural has been used to suggest open space, agricultural occupations, low density of settlement, isolation, and a slowness to make changes. Although these historical usages have faded, they are not entirely obsolete.

Rural continues to suggest relatively open space, relatively low population density, and relatively greater reluctance to adopt new life styles.

Church members in Millville, W. Va., boil apple butter, an annual event. Traditions and fellowship are important to rural people.

Although our American society is commonly characterized as being highly urban, I would argue that the rural distinction is still important. Not all Americans live in big cities or densely packed suburbs.

In fact, one-third of our Nation is still living in small towns and open country areas. For a highly developed Nation, this fact is extremely significant. Although our farm population has declined sharply since World War II, the proportion of our population choosing to live in the country and small towns has changed relatively little.

The very advantages of having more “elbow room” lead to some disadvantages for this one-third of a nation that are important for public policy. Dispersed settlement and low population density mean that the rural person spends proportionately more time in travel—getting to work, shopping, and in social activities.

The rural person allocates more of his money and time budget to transportation.

Certain opportunities must be foregone because of the cost or the time involved in getting from one place to another.

Delivery of public services such as water, electricity and gas, waste disposal, medical care, education, cultural activities, and social welfare, becomes more costly, more difficult, or even impossible.

Sign points way to rural welfare office. Providing social services presents more problems in country areas.

The rural distinction is important because of the peculiar spatial disadvantages falling on those who live in small towns or the open country.

Ironically, there is now another reason why the rural distinction is important. America is an urban society. Most of our recent Federal and State programs for improving the general welfare of our people have been designed primarily for the urban situation by urbanites, and require grant-seeking skills less frequently found among country and small town people.

An example would be the Community Action Programs that require frequent meetings of representatives from local areas. Transportation to a central meeting place has been a problem. Low-income people from various supposedly adjacent neighborhoods may not even know each other or have established patterns of cooperative action.

Communication back to rank-and- file citizens may be difficult and have to rely much more on word-of-mouth channels. Expertise in “grantsmanship” and organizing skills may be in short supply. Traditional social barriers between racial and ethnic groups may pose unusual difficulties.

The gist of the matter is that the delivery of social services, especially when these programs are urban-designed, is much more difficult in rural areas. Thus, for an unfortunate reason, the rural distinction is important in designing and administering programs.

Students at one-room school in Kentucky play dodgeball during recess.

If, as has been argued, the rural distinction is important, how do we define rural? A number of definitions have been used and, for a number of reasons, found deficient.

Once, when our Nation was largely agricultural, rural and farm could be used interchangeably. Most of the people who lived in the country were farmers.

Today, most of the people living in the country are not farmers (less than a fifth). Furthermore, a considerable number of farmers and farmworkers live in towns and cities (about 10 percent of the farmers and two-thirds of the farmworkers).

Some people would define rural as meaning open country. Then what are we to do about hamlets, villages, small towns, and scattered housing subdivisions? Most of these locations are isolated from cities, are unincorporated, and permit their residents the luxury of considerable open space.

Residents of such places frequently explain they are living where they are “to get away from the city,” the high costs of unwanted urban facilities, and the restrictions on pets, dogs, horses, livestock, automobiles, and other nonconforming interests prohibited in built-up areas.

How large can a place be and still stay rural? How small and still be urban? There are no precise answers. In this country, the U.S. Census has made the dividing line at 2,500 or more population (with special rules for built-up areas around cities of 50,000 or more). But other countries make the cut at 2,000, 5,000, or 10,000.

There is no convenient dividing line for separating rural and urban. The U.S. Census of Population vacillated between 8,000, 4,000, and 1,000 before finally settling on 2,500 in 1910.

Today, most authorities feel 2,500 is too low. What do Diboll, Tex. (1960 pop. 2,506) and New York City (1960 pop. 7,781,984) really have in common? Suggestions for raising the cutting point run all the way from 5,000 to 50,000. Perhaps the cutting point should lie somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000.

Others have suggested that the distinction be between metropolitan (counties with central cities totaling 50,000 or more) and nonmetropolitan. This suggestion, though it has some merit, overlooks the fact that many people are living under rural conditions in metropolitan counties. In fact, one-fourth of our rural population, as currently defined, lives in the so-called Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

It is an interesting fact that much of our undeniably rural population, living under dispersed settlement, is located close to large cities. A good example would be the farm country in Lancaster County, Pa.

This last example is a good place to make the point that rural does not, only mean low density of settlement
and difficulty in providing public services, but it also implies differences in ways of life. In rural areas there is a preference for less government, less regulation, and more local control.

This is fine, but it is not always the most happy arrangement. In many of our rural areas the machinery of government, which was designed in horse-buggy days, has become pain full obsolete.

In both areas where population has grown rapidly and where population has declined precipitously, present forms of government may be inadequate for dealing effectively with contemporary problems.

The ideals of small government, local control, and local support, instead of enlarging individual opportunity, may actually restrict the development of human potentialities and the freedom of the individual to improve his condition.

Farm meeting near Warrenton, Va. Informality is valued in rural life. So is make-do.

The problem does not only lie with government. Many of our other rural institutions—the church, the school, medical facilities, businesses—are also suffering from the problem of too small units, too small service areas, too small an economic base for support, and somewhat obsolete institutional design problems.

Thus our rural areas today are the scene of conflict between traditional ideals and the need to revamp the institutional structure into more efficient, more economic, and more responsive units.

There is yet another meaning of rural that should be pointed out. This meaning lies in the area of culture, values, and preferences. It includes the preference for personal, face-to-face relations over impersonal, mass-media communication.

This meaning puts a strong emphasis on:
• kinship ties,
• personal rather than highly theological religion,
• pragmatics over theory,
• performance over promises,
• personal trust over impersonal calculation,
• informal controls over legal regulation,
• open space over the crowded cities,
• growing plants and tending animals over manipulating inanimate objects,
• a preference for nature and the outdoors, and
• a devotion to precedent and to established patterns.

In a sense, all Americans are partly rural in their preferences.

However, the rural tendencies are most pronounced in our country areas. For instance an examination of voting patterns in State and national elections reveals these tendencies. Typically, there are sharp differences in voting patterns between the big cities and the downstate or upstate districts.

These rural preferences are also reflected in responses to moral issues. People in our rural areas are much more likely to emphasize the traditionally established patterns.

Another instance lies in attitudes toward labor unions and membership in them. Rural workers are less likely to be unionized.

There are differences in recreation, with rural people emphasizing fishing and hunting, rather than indoor pursuits. Differences in kinship interaction and size of family are also apparent.

The above examples show that although the rural way of life may be muted, it is far from dead.

Like Grant Putnam family picnicking beside their farm pond in lngham County, Mich., many farm people enjoy luxury of space and fine opportunities for outdoor recreation. But only one in five rural families lives on a farm.

Rural is more than a place, it is an outlook on life.

So, what does rural mean? It means relatively lower population density, easier access to open space, fewer restrictions brought on by the pressure of people, somewhat different value standards in preferences and conduct, and a somewhat stronger commitment to the institutions and lifeways of an American past.

It also means deprivations in terms of amount and quality of public services, the cost and time involved in transportation, and difficulties in relating to new urban-designed programs and services.

Rural, furthermore, means an important segment of our nation’s population—one-third. It is a segment that is not decreasing in proportionate size, despite the alleged urbanization of our society. It is a segment that tends to be overlooked in these times of preoccupation with urban crises.

If rural problems are overlooked, what kind of future is there for children like these?

Although solving urban problems in our society should have top priority, the severity and magnitude of similar problems in the development of human resources and in the provision of basic services and facilities are no less important in rural areas. The importance is for rural living itself, not just because rural areas contribute so many undereducated, unskilled migrants to urban areas.

Rural means people. It includes farmers, but it also includes men and women following every occupation known who choose to live beyond the city limits in housing subdivisions, in towns, and in the open country.

It means people with a strong desire for privacy, living space, and self-reliance.

It means people with a pride in home and family.

It means people looking for opportunity who have left the country for the city.

Rural means America, our history and much of our dreams.

Thus, the rural distinction is important because it represents so much of what America has been as well as what it hopes to be.

Rural means life at a scale that is comprehensible to the individual. It is important that we preserve and strengthen this option.

4-H’er Deborah Tullar shows off prize Holstein in Orford, N.H. Growing plants and tending animals are strong rural attractions.
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