I became energized to advocate for rural and small town America after a trip to Washington, D.C. several years ago. Two things happened on that trip. The first was a high-ranking congressional staffer said to me, “Diane, why should we focus on rural America? Nobody lives there anymore.” The second was when a pivotal agency staffer defended a poor decision by declaring, “Rural Americans will have sufficient bandwidth to download their emails and pay their taxes online.” The point being that we didn’t need as much broadband capability as our high-tech urban neighbors.
I knew then that America off the beaten path was perilously misunderstood. I also knew that such misunderstandings could have some pretty big consequences for those of us who choose to live outside urban centers. So, as the New Year rings in, it’s a good time to review some pertinent factoids about our nations rural and small town communities.
According to the U.S. Census (which gives us 2010 data for rural and small town populations), of the more than 315 million Americans, over 59 million live in a rural area, defined as a community with fewer than 2,500 people living in it.
Another 29 million people live in a community with between 2,500 and 50,000 people (this includes small cities like Whitefish, Columbia Falls, and Kalispell).
Therefore, according to the latest U.S. Census, almost 90 million Americans live in a rural or small community. That’s a lot of people.
Also according to the U.S. Census, and because it’s an interesting comparison with the earlier numbers, America has 83.1 million millennials (born between 1982 and 2000) and 75.4 million baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). 46.2 million Americans are over age 65 (some of them are also baby boomers). A lot of these older Americans live in rural and small town America. So do lots of millennials, although to read popular media you might think a millennial choosing to live in rural America is rarer than a Sasquatch sighting.
Just about every federal or state agency touches rural and small town America. That’s why I think we should know a few key factoids about where we live. Rural Americans represent a lot of people. Added together with folks in small towns, we outnumber just about everybody. And we’re way more high tech, entrepreneurial, and productive than our political and thought leaders often give us credit for.
Political America would never make a policy decision that didn’t fully evaluate its effects on baby boomers, millennials, or people over 65. Yet policymakers across America every day make decisions even though they are under-informed about the unique characteristics of America beyond our urban and suburban centers.
In D.C., folks talk about “having a seat at the table.” That means making sure your interests are considered at decision-making time. Let’s make sure in 2016 that rural and small town America have seats at the table. Because there’s plenty of us here.
*For some inexplicable reason the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture use different definitions of “rural.” According to USDA’s definition, there are 10 million fewer rural Americans than the U.S. Census claims. Figuring out this discrepancy will be one of my personal objectives for 2016.
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