Even though a lot of the United States is, by definition, rural, very little of the population fully resides in rural areas. Though many speak of how nice it would be to move out to the country, it makes sense that few actually do so.
“Rural” is a theoretical concept that most people are familiar with, but it is defined by the Census Bureau as just about anything not in an urban area. Because of how closely related they are, the Bureau has introduced two terms:
- Urbanized areas: places that are “continuously built-up… with a population of 50,000 or more.”
- Urban clusters: “areas containing at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people.”
According to the Department of Agriculture, in 2020, about 76% of the U.S. population was located in urban areas. This means that the urban population is 285,443,646, and the rural population is roughly 46 million.
The Census Bureau will be releasing rural and urban population-related data in early 2023, which is why in the tables below, we use 2010 Census data.
Characteristics of Rural Areas
Researchers and policy officials have used several definitions to distinguish rural areas from urban areas, which has created confusion. This also highlights that rural and urban are multidimensional concepts. Rural areas are sometimes defined by population density and geographic isolation, but, generally, rural areas share the following characteristics: a small population size, a generally low population density, a lower cost of living, lower wages, and, consequently, higher poverty rates; lots of farmland, ranch land, nature; less access to shopping, doctors, and other services; and an aging population.
Americans in rural areas are increasingly well educated in recent decades. In 1970, 56% of rural adults 25 and older did not have a high school diploma, which decreased to 15% in 2015. Additionally, about 3 out of 10 rural adults have a Bachelor’s degree or higher.
Historically, urban areas have had a higher percentage of adults with college degrees. Education is correlated with economic outcomes, so lower educational attainment in rural areas is closely related to higher poverty rates, child poverty rates, and higher unemployment rates. Urban areas tend to have more employment opportunities, and higher wages allow more adults to get college degrees.
According to the Census Bureau, most of the rural population is clustered within the vicinity of urban areas. This is common because rural farms often serve the needs of rural communities and nearby cities.
Perceptions of rural areas vary among Americans. Some see rural Americans as the backbone of the nations, supplying food and representing individualism and self-sufficiency. On the other hand, some see rural Americans as burdened by poor job opportunities and low ages, causing persistent poverty.
Most Rural States in the U.S.
Using the most recent U.S. Census data from 2010, Stacker ranked each state by its rural population. Below are the ten most rural states in the U.S., including their percentage of the population living in rural areas, rural population density, and rural land area.