Much of rural America is more prosperous than expected, particularly in the Midwest and Plains, a recent study by researchers at the University of Illinois (U of I) has found.
The study analyzed unemployment rates, poverty rates, high school drop-out rates, and housing conditions to identify prospering communities.
According to the study, one in five rural counties in the United States is prosperous. They do better than the nation on all these measures.
"Growth and income are the conventional measures of community success," said U of I economist and planner Andrew Isserman.
"But, in talking with farm groups, elected leaders, and rural development professionals from across the country, I realized how few were happy. Some worried about growing too much, and the others fretted about growing too little," he added.
Isserman decided to focus on outcomes instead of growth.
"When we started our research, people wondered whether we would find any prosperous rural communities at all using those criteria. But more than 300 of the nation's rural counties did better than the nation," he said.
Counties in America's Heartland came out on top with half its rural counties prospering.
USDA defines the Heartland as Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa and parts of six adjacent states. In the Southeast and Southwest, fewer than one in twenty rural counties prosper.
Prosperous rural counties have more off-farm jobs, more educated populations, and less income inequality than other rural counties.
Geographical factors like climate, topography, distances to cities and airports, and interstate highways are unimportant in distinguishing prosperous counties from others.
"Instead, the results supported what many rural people believe to be true-civically engaged religious groups and a common ancestry can really matter," Isserman said.
The prosperous rural counties in 2000 averaged 2 percent growth over the previous decade.
The worst-off counties, which met no prosperity criteria, averaged five times the growth at 11 percent, and had much lower incomes.
"This finding supports our view that growth and prosperity are different dimensions, and much can be learned from studying rural prosperity," said Isserman.
Having analyzed the data on 1,300 rural counties, the research team is studying communities up close to learn the story behind the statistical results.
"We want to figure out how and why these places prosper in order to help other rural places do well, too," said Isserman.