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!

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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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 transform the “Gifting Circle” into a true Giving Circle

Over the past few weeks a number of people have asked about legal and sustainable alternatives to the “Gifting Circle.”  I have been hearing rumors about new “circles” that are “less illegal” and offer a lower entry fee. Yet, these are still based on exponential growth through recruitment of new members and promise a profitable return . . . which still makes them illegal investment pyramids and financially unsustainable.
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Distribution of Wealth and Action

Two children died on the street near my apartment the day before I left Quito, Ecuador in late December 2001. One was five and the other was seven. The newspaper reported them as “un-identified.” I had seen them for weeks, begging for money and food near the bus stop. Numb to the vast numbers of homeless beggars that surrounded me, I often ignored their pleas, but once in a while I gave them my food. It never occurred to me that these two innocent children would actually die from being ignored. I assumed that someone (their families, the government, etc.) would take care of the children.  But nobody took care of them. Cold and starving, these two nameless children had been left alone on the street to die. In a world that produces so much excess, I couldn’t understand how children could be left without care.
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Awakening Through Money

Awakening Through Money

“Money is part of life where we are confused and upset – or filled with arrogance and pride.” – Lynne Twist

Awareness is one of the greatest agents for change. In bringing true awareness to something, we see the illusions we have created to justify our worldview, actions and habits. In illuminating that which we don’t want to see, we are forced to awaken and eventually change. I believe that in truly looking at money, seeing the light and shadow aspects, we can awaken to true abundance.

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What is the True Cost of a McDonald’s Value Meal?

Why should we care about the True Cost of a Value Meal?

Obesity and the American Diet have received plenty of attention for the corollary relationship between high consumption of sugars and saturated fats and the alarming rates of obesity and obesity related diseases. According to the World Health Organization, in 2007, the obesity rate in USA was 31%. For comparison, the obesity rate in Japan was 3% (OECD Health Data, 2010). Additionally, the cost of health care associated with obesity is 43% more (Reinberg, 2009). The US pays three times more for health care than Japan (United Nations Development Programme). With policy makers arguing over the US health care system overhaul and ways to fund it, perhaps they should take a systems view and look at the “American Diet” as a leverage point in changing our health care crisis.
Continue reading “What is the True Cost of a McDonald’s Value Meal?”