Six charts that illustrate the divide between rural and urban America

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The divide is in the data.
American Community Survey (ACS) 2011-2015 5 year estimates, Table S1810, CC BY

Brian Thiede, Pennsylvania State University; Lillie Greiman, The University of Montana; Stephan Weiler, Colorado State University; Steven C. Beda, University of Oregon, and Tessa Conroy, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Editor’s note: We’ve all heard of the great divide between life in rural and urban America. But what are the factors that contribute to these differences? We asked sociologists, economists, geographers and historians to describe the divide from different angles. The data paint a richer and sometimes surprising picture of the U.S. today. The Conversation

1. Poverty is higher in rural areas

Discussions of poverty in the United States often mistakenly focus on urban areas. While urban poverty is a unique challenge, rates of poverty have historically been higher in rural than urban areas. In fact, levels of rural poverty were often double those in urban areas throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

While these rural-urban gaps have diminished markedly, substantial differences persist. In 2015, 16.7 percent of the rural population was poor, compared with 13.0 percent of the urban population overall – and 10.8 percent among those living in suburban areas outside of principal cities.

Contrary to common assumptions, substantial shares of the poor are employed. Approximately 45 percent of poor, prime-age (25-54) householders worked at least part of 2015 in rural and urban areas alike.

The link between work and poverty was different in the past. In the early 1980s, the share of the rural poor that was employed exceeded that in urban areas by more than 15 percent. Since then, more and more poor people in rural areas are also unemployed – a trend consistent with other patterns documented below.

That said, rural workers continue to benefit less from work than their urban counterparts. In 2015, 9.8 percent of rural, prime-age working householders were poor, compared with 6.8 percent of their urban counterparts. Nearly a third of the rural working poor faced extreme levels of deprivation, with family incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line, or approximately US$12,000 for a family of four.

Large shares of the rural workforce also live in economically precarious circumstances just above the poverty line. Nearly one in five rural working householders lived in families with incomes less than 150 percent of the poverty line. That’s nearly five percentage points more than among urban workers (13.5 percent).

According to recent research, rural-urban gaps in working poverty cannot be explained by rural workers’ levels of education, industry of employment or other similar factors that might affect earnings. Rural poverty – at least among workers – cannot be fully explained by the characteristics of the rural population. That means reducing rural poverty will require attention to the structure of rural economies and communities.

Brian Thiede, Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology and Demography, Pennsylvania State University

2. Most new jobs aren’t in rural areas

It’s easy to see why many rural Americans believe the recession never ended: For them, it hasn’t.

Rural communities still haven’t recovered the jobs they lost in the recession. Census data show that the rural job market is smaller now – 4.26 percent smaller, to be exact – than it was in 2008. In these data are shuttered coal mines on the edges of rural towns and boarded-up gas stations on rural main streets. In these data are the angers, fears and frustrations of much of rural America.

This isn’t a new trend. Mechanization, environmental regulations and increased global competition have been slowly whittling away at resource extraction economies and driving jobs from rural communities for most of the 20th century. But the fact that what they’re experiencing now is simply the cold consequences of history likely brings little comfort to rural people. If anything, it only adds to their fear that what they once had is gone and it’s never coming back.

Nor is it likely that the slight increase in rural jobs since 2013 brings much comfort. As the resource extraction economy continues to shrink, most of the new jobs in rural areas are being created in the service sector. So Appalachian coal miners and Northwest loggers are now stocking shelves at the local Walmart.

The identity of rural communities used to be rooted in work. The signs at the entrances of their towns welcomed visitors to coal country or timber country. Towns named their high school mascots after the work that sustained them, like the Jordan Beetpickers in Utah or the Camas Papermakers in Washington. It used to be that, when someone first arrived at these towns, they knew what people did and that they were proud to do it.

That’s not so clear anymore. How do you communicate your communal identity when the work once at the center of that identity is gone, and calling the local high school football team the “Walmart Greeters” simply doesn’t have the same ring to it?

Looking at rural jobs data, is it so hard to understand why many rural people are nostalgic for the past and fearful for the future?

Steven Beda, Instructor of History, University of Oregon

3. Disabilities are more common in rural areas

Disability matters in rural America. Data from the American Community Survey, an annual government poll, reveal that disability is more prevalent in rural counties than their urban counterparts.

The rate of disability increases from 11.8 percent in the most urban metropolitan counties to 15.6 percent in smaller micropolitan areas and 17.7 percent in the most rural, or noncore, counties.

While rural-urban differences in disability have been analyzed previously, researchers have had little opportunity to further explore this disparity, as updated data on rural disability were unavailable until recently. Fortunately, the census released updated new county-level disability estimates in 2014, ending a 14-year knowledge gap.

The release of these estimates has also allowed us to build a picture of geographic variations in disability across the nation. Disability rates vary significantly across the U.S. Although the national trend of higher disability rates in rural counties persists at the regional and even divisional level, it is clear that disability in rural America is not homogeneous. Rates of rural disability range from around 15 percent in the Great Plains to 21 percent in the central South.

Data reveal notable differences between rural and urban America.
American Community Survey (ACS) 2011-2015 5 year estimates, Table S1810, CC BY

A variety of factors may be behind these regional and rural differences, including differences in demographics, economic patterns, health and service access and state disability policies.

While this survey provides a glimpse into the national prevalence of disability and reveals a persistent rural-urban disparity, it is important to note its limitations. Disability is the result of an interaction between an individual and his or her environment. Therefore, these data do not directly measure disability, as they measure only physical function and do not consider environmental factors such as inaccessible housing.

Lillie Greiman and Andrew Myers, Project Directors at the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities at the University of Montana; Christiane von Reichert, Professor of Geography, University of Montana

4. Rural areas are surprisingly entrepreneurial

The United States’ continuing economic dominance is perhaps most attributable to the very smallest elements of its economy: its entrepreneurial start-ups. Nearly 700,000 new job-creating businesses open each year. That’s almost 2,000 every day, each helping to create new market niches in the global economy.

Most people mistakenly believe these pioneering establishments occur in overwhelmingly in metropolitan areas, such as in the now-mythic start-up culture of Silicon Valley.

Yet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it is in fact nonmetropolitan counties that have higher rates of self-employed business proprietors than their metropolitan counterparts.

Furthermore, the more rural the county, the higher its level of entrepreneurship. Some of these counties have a farming legacy – perhaps the most entrepreneurial of occupations – but farmers represent less than one-sixth of business owners in nonmetro areas. Even for nonfarm enterprises, rural entrepreneurship rates are higher.

The reality is that rural areas have to be entrepreneurial, as industries with concentrations of wage and salary jobs are necessarily scarce.

Start-up businesses have notoriously difficult survival prospects. So it is perhaps even more surprising that relatively isolated nonmetropolitan businesses are on average more resilient than their metro cousins, despite the considerable economic advantages of urban areas, which boast a denser networks of workers, suppliers and markets. The resilience of rural start-ups is perhaps due to more cautious business practices in areas with few alternative employment options.

This resilience is also remarkably persistent over time, consistently being at least on par with metro start-ups, and regularly having survival rates up to 10 percentage points higher than in metro areas over 1990-2007.

Stephan Weiler, Professor of Economics, Colorado State University; Tessa Conroy and Steve Deller, Professors of Economics, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Brian Thiede, Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology and Demography, Pennsylvania State University; Lillie Greiman, Research Associate, The University of Montana; Stephan Weiler, Professor of Economics, Colorado State University; Steven C. Beda, Instructor of History, University of Oregon, and Tessa Conroy, Economic Development Specialist, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Marketing as Design Thinking?

Why yes, of course! How many times have you seen an ad that simply “misses the mark” or a promotion for a new product that flops? I bet that you don’t even notice it anymore it has happened so often. But why does it happen? Why are millions poured into an industry that really isn’t that good at what it does? Are marketers really that bad at their jobs?

No, marketers are good at their jobs – perhaps too good. According to most of the business world, a marketer’s job is to: A) get your attention, B) get you to try something new and then C) get you to form a habit. Marketers have excelled in this. Look at all the habitual behaviors, or addictive ones! Everything from smartphone addiction to sugar and coffee, our world is run by habits designed by marketers. Or were they?

While marketers love to take credit for their clever campaigns, social behavior change is deeper than that. Social behavior change that sticks as a habit rarely has anything to do with clever marketing, but all to do with two things: 1) The core design of the product or service itself and 2) The community in which the product or service is introduced.

According to social psychologist and behavior change expert, Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr, the number one predictor of a person’s behavior is what their neighbor is doing. However, new behaviors won’t turn to habits unless the product itself serves a fundamental need, whether or not the consumer recognizes the need. We didn’t know that we needed smartphones, yet as I am undoubtedly addicted to the point that my thumbs hurt. We weren’t able to name the need, but we were able to name the needed services provided by the smartphone (camera, phone, calendar, LOL Cats Tumbler feed, and portal to endless Googleable information). Iphone’s stunningly artsy new billboard ad campaign for the iphone7 speaks to the need for human creative expression through photography.

Designing for the unspoken, unacknowledged needs is at the core of Design Thinking.   Human Centered Design (HCD), a Design Thinking methodology developed by IDEO, an international design and consulting firm is a method of problem solving that use empathy for understanding the context of a problem. Creativity is employed in identifying insights and possible solutions and rationality is employed in analyzing and planning various solutions.

The HCD process uses unique tools to capture the users’ perspective.  HCD engages direct participation by constituents early and often in the design cycle. Also, the process goes deep rather than broad. Instead of looking at averages, which often miss a large portion of user’s needs, HCD examines extremes.  

Below are the three stages start-ups and companies can engage in to produce behavior change that draws clients or customers to their services or goods.

HEAR: Social Listening (Market Research) 

Social Listening is an in-depth empathy-based market research process that goes beyond survey data by using various interview, shadowing and research techniques to understand the hidden barriers, motivations and worldviews of the constituency groups. In addition to using survey data for broad understanding, Social Listening develops a deep understanding and empathy for the user.  One can collect data on internal and external audience perceptions and hidden motivations in this effort.  Through this process a business can come away with a deeper understanding of the needs of their constituents, as well as the constraints and barriers to the design challenge.

CREATE: Design Collaboration & Brand Development

During the “CREATE” phase, businesses can translate insights about the reality of today into a set of opportunities for the future. With the understanding gleaned from the HEAR phase, businesses can brainstorms solutions for opportunities and can start exploring if some of those solutions are tangible through prototypes or beta testing.  The team can then gather feedback on their prototypes or beta testing from their constituency.  The intent of gathering feedback is to refine the solutions not to prove that they are the solution. The best feedback is that which has your team rethink and redesign.

DELIVER: Marketing Plan and Implementation  

Through the HEAR and CREATE stages of the HCD market research process participants can assess solutions through a desirability lens only, ignoring the lens of feasibility, which is the focus of the DELIVER phase. It is in the DELIVER phase where teams develop a financial model, identify capabilities, plan for growth, create an implementation time line, test with mini pilot projects, and finally evaluate effectiveness.  Essentially they are creating a marketing plan.  Another goal of the DELIVER phase is to create a plan for on-going learning and iteration so that your solutions can improve and adapt to changing situations.

Our team at Green Ideas employed this methodology in a rebranding process for Napa Valley Transportation Authority. To approve the strategic rebranding for Napa Valley Transportation Authority, the twelve agency board members consisting of Napa County municipal mayors and council members unanimously voted to approve the agency rebranding in 15 minutes.


“After all the years in government, I have never seen a political body make a unanimous decision in such a short amount of time.”  – Jill Techel, Mayor of Napa

The rebranding effort was so successful not by magic, but due to a six-month stakeholder engagement process we led, informed by the Human Centered Design process.

We regularly teach this methodology to our clients. Amber Bieg of Green Ideas will be co-facilitating with Deb LaSalle a mini-HCD workshop on April 10th. Join us to learn more about how effective this process can be!

The Soul of Investing with RSF Social Finance

Posted to Triple Pundit by Amber Bieg

What if your investments reflected your spiritual values? What if you put your money where your heart is?

RSF Social Finance is helping pave the way for investors and entrepreneurs to incorporate their values and even spirituality into their investing practices.  The company’s goal, as President and CEO Don Shaffer recently communicated at SOCAP 2015, is to transform the way the world works with money. Its way of doing this is by creating an entirely new model for investing — a model based on humanness and relationships, rather than the impersonal “business is business” approach of the current financial model. This new model is based on openness, transparency, aligned values, personal relationships and education.

RSF has worked to achieve this by creating an institution that functions both as a bank and a foundation. The company chooses to work only with social enterprises it finds to be inspiring and that need investment but may not be able to acquire loans from conventional banks.

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What is the Future of SOCAP?

Posted to Triple Pundit by Amber Bieg on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2015

Investors who want to learn more about investing capital toward social good don’t have to wait until the annual SOCAP (Social Capital Markets conference) reconvenes.

SOCAP is a world-renowned conference that intends to bring together thought leaders and established players to talk about social impact investing. SOCAP brings together global innovators, investors, foundations, governments, institutions, and social entrepreneurs to build a world we want to leave to future generations.

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Why Value Earth’s Ecosystems?

“Nature should be valued for its intrinsic worth, over and above any economic factors. However, right now, we’re losing nature because we don’t price it in . . . (TEEB).”

What Are Ecosystem Services?

Earth’s natural systems are humanity’s “life support,” providing valuable services upon which our ability to survive depends. From the air we breathe to the pollination of our food crops, we rely on ecosystems to provide us the essentials for life. Ecosystem services have been described as “The Benefits Nature Provides (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).” The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment identifies 24 specific ecosystem services, and groups them into four categories: provisioning services (producing food, fiber, fuel, water, etc.), regulating services (regulating climate, air quality, water purification, pollination, etc.) cultural services (providing spiritual, educational, aesthetical values, etc.) and supporting services (soil formation, photosynthesis, water cycling and nutrient cycling) (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).

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Ecosystem Markets for Urban Forestry

“All humans depend on services supplied by ecosystems, either directly or indirectly (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).”

Human life wouldn’t survive without healthy ecosystems. Humans are dependent on ecosystem service ranging from pollination of food crops to oxygen from trees and other vegetation. However, human activities are causing the Earth’s greatest extinction of biodiversity (the key to healthy ecosystems). “The observed rates of species extinction in modern times are 100 to 1,000 times higher than the average rates for comparable groups estimated from the fossil record (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).”

This mass extinction is a direct result of humans consuming and destroying ecosystems. Since the beginning of the industrial age, human populations have grown and individual consumption has increased. “Increasing consumption per person, multiplied by a growing human population, are the root causes of the increasing demand for ecosystem services (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).”

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Afraid of Numbers Part 1: Assessing the risk of vaccination and infectious disease in America

What is the risk of vaccination vs non-vaccination?

Baby with measles, source: Wikipedia

A few months ago a bunch of kids caught measles at Disneyland. [1] Scary. But, do you know what else is scary? In the aftermath of the outbreak, concerned citizens, health practitioners, government officials, the media, and mothers alike hurled insults at one another, accused one another of ignorance and deceit, and, in some cases, accused one another of murder.[2]

It is not surprising, really. The stakes are high. We are talking about the health of society, the health of our children, the risks of tinkering with the human immune system, the risks of life-threatening diseases, and the risk of death.

Perhaps you believe there are no risks. Perhaps you believe vaccines are 100% safe, 100% effective, and those who believe otherwise are gullible victims of faulty science and/or disillusioned conspiracy theorists. Or, perhaps you believe the risk of an otherwise healthy individual contracting a life-threatening disease in the developed world is but fear mongering propaganda in the hands of corrupt pharmaceuticals. Either way, the data suggests otherwise. 

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Envisioning a Wool Mill in California



Why is California Throwing Away Wool?

While browsing my neighborhood farmers market on a sunny September afternoon, I met Rebecca King, a sheep dairy farmer and the owner of Garden Variety Cheese. Upon seeing the word “sheep” on the cheese label, my one-track mind immediately thought “fiber!” To feed my felt obsession, I quickly inquired if she happened to have any wool available. A bit surprised at my eagerness, King responded, “Why yes, I have way too much wool. Why, do you want some?” As we discussed her sheep and their fiber, she lamented about how much money she loses on the wool every year, as the annual cost of shearing (required for sheep health) is more than what she earns in wool revenue. We negotiated a price for a large bag of wool and the next week I walked home, smelling somewhat of a sheep dairy, carrying a huge garbage bag full of spongy felting wool. Continue reading “Envisioning a Wool Mill in California”

Fabric Earth Dreamscape – A felt rug as a catalyst for change


Catching an updraft, I glide over the ridge. Feeling the wind whisper the threat of rain, I see the glaring reflection on the river against a backdrop of thunder. The valley below tormented by brown and black streaks, twisted stretched branches with muddy fingers reaching for the sea. Trees no longer stand, the beaver dam washed down river. Leaning my head into the wind, I swoop down feeling the current over my entire body.  Searching, desperately for my usual spot: The shallow calm where insects hum and trout kiss the surface. It is gone. The fish are gone. All I see are streaks of black and brown, a tangled mess of branches caught by mud. I am hungry. I want fish for breakfast. I open my eyes and stare at the ceiling. Confused, I look to my left. Husband still asleep. My refrigerator doesn’t have trout this morning. I wonder . . . where can I get trout in the city? Continue reading “Fabric Earth Dreamscape – A felt rug as a catalyst for change”

How to Create a Sustainable Giving Circle

A Quick Guide to Creating a 13 Moon Sacred Giving* Circle 

Example of sacred symmetry


  1. You must limit your group to 13 women.
  2. You agree to meet once per lunar cycle (each new moon or full moon) – every woman MUST commit to being present for circle EVERY moon for 13 moons.
  3. At the start of the year, every woman puts her name on a piece of paper and places it into a jar (one woman guards this for safe-keeping).
  4. Every month, when you meet, each women gives $100 into a pot (or cauldron).
  5. During the gathering, share food, hold ceremony, share with each other your dreams, visions, and manifestations.
  6. Every month, during the gathering one woman’s name is taken out of the jar and that woman gets to take home the entire pot ($1,300).
  7. Continue this ceremony for 13 moons, removing one woman’s name each moon, until every woman has experienced receiving the $1,300 gift.
  8. When you do the accounting at the end of the year (you can do on a simple paper ledger kept in the same jar as the names), make sure that each woman has given $1,300 and has received the exact same amount ($1,300).

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