Rural America Is Not a Monolith

A demographer was looking at the complex and varied nature of rural populations long before the 2016 election

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Kenneth M. Johnson stands in front of a history-making combine outside of John Deere Pavilion in Moline, Illinois. This machine was the 500,000th self-propelled combine to roll off Deere’s East Moline assembly line. (Photo: Brenda P. Johnson)

When Kenneth M. Johnson was named a Carnegie fellow in spring 2016 his area of interest — population trends in rural America and their effects on policy — may have struck some as a bit quirky. After all, the conventional wisdom went, America is a suburban and urban nation where people in population centers control elections and shape government.

Rural America “was sort of outside the spotlight of where all the media and foundation attention tends to be,” says Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire.

Then the 2016 presidential election happened. While rural Americans tend to be more likely to vote Republican than their city cousins, this trend was particularly pronounced in 2016. “Across the board, the support for the Democratic presidential candidate dropped in 2016,” Johnson says. “We could see that it was not just some parts of rural America but it was fairly widespread.” The results sparked a national discussion about America’s rural-urban split and how national politicians who ignore rural voters can pay a hefty price. Johnson’s interest in rural America seemed downright prescient.

There are stereotypes that rural people are not well educated, that they’re all in agriculture. Both of those things are incorrect.

— Kenneth M. Johnson, University of New Hampshire

While Johnson welcomes the attention paid to those often forgotten Americans, he criticizes the media and others for seeing rural America as a monolith. “People who can discuss the subtleties between the west and east sides of Manhattan somehow think all of rural America is alike,” Johnson explained. “There are stereotypes that rural people are not well educated, that they’re all in agriculture. Both of those things are incorrect.”

Johnson’s recent research, partially supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York and done with Daniel T. Lichter, looks at declines in population in rural counties. Here too, he sees a complicated and varied picture. While a vast majority of counties that have seen people move away are rural, Johnson and Lichter find many rural counties, particularly those near metropolitan areas or attractive to tourists or retirees, “are thriving and gaining population.”

Beyond his academic work, Johnson often speaks to people in communities grappling with the effects of shrinking populations. In a high school class of 100, Johnson says, “it’s not unusual for 50 or half the kids to leave the rural area that they grew up in within a few years after they graduate from high school. That means there are fewer young adults to take up a position in the economy, to go into the labor force, to do all of the volunteer things.”

Johnson readily admits he cannot offer these communities a quick solution to their problems, but he can reassure them that they are not alone. “I can give them this larger context of what’s happening in rural America,” he says. “It’s helpful for them to hear from someone who can say this is part of the big picture in rural America.”