ERIC Identifier: ED425048
Publication Date: 1999-01-00
Author: Huang, Gary G.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Sociodemographic Changes: Promise and Problems for Rural
Education. ERIC Digest.
In the 1990s the United States experienced one of the most robust growth
cycles in the economy since World War II. Major indicators of socioeconomic
well-being show that rural regions have benefited from the economic expansion.
Favorable changes in rural demographics and economic conditions both promise
opportunities and raise questions about public programs, including rural
schools. This Digest, which draws information from federal statistics,
summarizes changes relevant to rural education and calls for more research into
their impact on rural education.
Two points must be noted. First, aggregated information often masks local
diversity. Readers should keep in mind that this Digest is merely an overview of
nationwide changes in rural conditions. Local policymakers must employ in-depth
analysis of unique local circumstances as viewed against the background of
broader developments outlined here. Second, due to the farming and rural
manufacturing industries' close ties to the global marketplace, rural economies
are vulnerable to the impact of changes in the volatile international market.
Local policymakers and educators need to be prudent in planning for their
schools' long-term development.
EMPLOYMENT AND INCOME GROW IN RURAL AREAS
economy has continued to grow throughout this decade, though it slowed recently
under the influence of the international financial crisis. Inflation has not
accelerated, consumer prices remain stable, and employment rates continue to be
high. Remarkably, while economic expansion in the 1980s left rural areas behind,
in the 1990s, rural areas have been growing at the same rate if not faster than
the nation overall. Benefiting from the steady growth of employment, income, and
local revenue, some rural schools now seem poised to improve their financial
conditions, though such improvement is not certain.
The rural economy is sensitive to fluctuations in manufacturing and export
rates. Rural workers are largely employed in manufacturing industries and many
farm products depend on export. The strong-to-moderate growth of manufacturing
in the past two years helped to raise the rural employment and real income
levels. The demand for American exports and agriculture-related services has
also led to growing employment in the rural labor market. The tight rural labor
market may result in further income growth in rural areas. How long such growth
can be sustained, however, seems unclear in light of the dramatic downturn of
the global economy in 1998. Local education planners must use caution when
making decisions related to large-scale projects requiring a prolonged supply of
Annual average employment growth was 1.6 percent in nonmetro areas over the
past several years, twice the rate in urban areas (Hamrick, 1997). More than two
million nonmetro jobs were added in the past four years.
The tight labor market led to rising earnings in rural areas (Gibbs, 1997).
Real weekly earnings for rural wage and salary workers rose 1.8 percent between
1990 and 1996. Rural earning growth was especially strong in the Midwest and
South, at 3.8 percent and 2.3 percent respectively, but was stagnant in the
Northeast and West.
Rural earning gains were uneven across demographic groups. Women in rural
areas saw their earnings rise 6.2 percent, compared with virtually unchanged
earnings among rural men. This gender difference could be attributed to rural
women having attained more education and, therefore, better-paying jobs than
rural men. More women have delayed marriage and childbearing, completed more
schooling, and participated in the labor force (Rogers, 1996).
In the same period, rural Hispanics and Blacks averaged real income gains of
3.4 percent and 3.1 percent respectively, better than the gains by rural Whites
(1.5 percent), and in sharp contrast with the loss among urban Hispanics and
Blacks (-4.2 percent and -1.2 percent respectively). Completing high school did
not make as great a difference to rural earnings as it did to urban earnings.
The rural workforce in general, however, still earns less than its urban
counterpart. In 1996, rural workers earned only about four-fifths of what urban
While the general population has gained in real income in the 1990s, teaching
professionals--especially those in rural areas and inner cities have not
(National Center for Education Statistics, 1998). State and local policymakers
have to face this issue if they want to use the increases in local revenue for
POVERTY AND THE WORKING POOR IN RURAL AREAS
challenge facing rural schools is continuing high poverty and its complex
distribution among the rural population. Rural poverty seems to be mildly
alleviated amid the economic growth, though still widely uneven across
demographic categories (Nord, 1997). The overall poverty rate in rural areas
declined slightly since 1993. In 1995, the rural household poverty rate was 15.6
percent, compared to the urban rate of 13.4 percent. This rural-urban gap has
remained constant since 1991. Moreover, a large portion of rural residents (26.3
percent) lived just above the poverty line, compared with the urban rate of 18.2
percent. Such a large proportion of the population having a marginal income
status makes rural families particularly vulnerable to changes in national and
regional economies and setbacks in their personal lives.
Rural Blacks and Native Americans suffer from more prevalent poverty. The
groups' poverty rates were 34.8 percent and 35.6 percent, compared with 12.2
percent among rural non-Hispanic Whites. Yet, because of the large White
majority in rural areas, almost two-thirds of the rural poor were non-Hispanic
Whites. The poverty rate for rural children in 1995 was 22.4 percent, equivalent
to 3.2 million children living in families below the poverty line. Among people
living in rural female-headed families, the poverty rate was 39.3 percent in
1995. More than 60 percent of the rural poor were in families with one or more
Poverty reduces children's opportunity to learn, both in the family and at
school. Schools in rural areas need to find effective strategies to alleviate
the difficulties facing poor children. Even more importantly, state governments
and local officials must work out broader programs to offer more generous
support for the poor, including social services and job opportunities with
POPULATION GROWTH AND NET MIGRATION GAINS IN RURAL
Rural school enrollment may grow over the coming years due to the
emerging pattern of population growing faster in rural areas than in other
places. In step with the rising economic tide, the population of rural America
has grown since 1990, largely due to migration (Beale, 1997). Between 1990 and
1996, the nonmetro population grew by 5.9 percent, which is more than twice the
increase that occurred during the entire 1980s (2.7 percent). Half of the
nonmetro population growth since 1990 is attributable to a net inflow of 1.5
million people from metro areas (Hansen, 1997). The net gain from migration
contributes to the rising per capita income because in-migrants have a higher
average income than do out-migrants, especially in counties with amenities such
as mild climate, beaches, or lakes (Cromartie, 1997).
While almost all rural counties had some population growth, the following
types had relatively greater growth: counties with economies focusing on
services and trade, retirement destination counties, and counties with high
levels of recreational activities. On the other hand, counties specializing in
manufacturing and counties depending on farming and mining have experienced
modest to slow growth in population.
In rural America, the number of younger people (under age 65) is growing
faster than is the number of older people (over age 65). The current
age-differentiated growth rate sharply differs from that of the 1980s, when the
number of older people increased at rates many times higher than that of younger
people. These statistics suggest that the 1990s population rebound in rural
areas largely involves younger people. Presumably, the school-age population in
rural areas will increase as a result of this demographic change. Program
planning for rural schools may entail examining local population trends against
the national pattern, in order to predict future enrollment and allocate related
IMMIGRANTS AND MINORITIES IN RURAL AREAS
immigrants and minorities, who are characterized by young age and low education
compared to their counterparts elsewhere, is a pressing issue for rural adult
education programs as well as elementary and secondary school systems. During
1980-90, rural minorities fell behind rural whites and urban minorities on key
measures of social and economic conditions, including poverty, income,
occupational status, and educational attainment. A comprehensive report of
federal census data concerning rural minorities in that period is available (see
Swanson, 1996). New data regarding rural minorities in the 1990s, though not
systematic, suggests mild improvement of socioeconomic conditions among Blacks
While most immigrants (about 95 percent) settle in large metro areas, those
who move to rural areas concentrate in a few locations (Effland & Butler,
1997). For example, in the South, Texas is home to 17 percent of the total
nonmetro immigrant population of the United States. The West accounts for about
7 percent of the nation's nonmetro immigrants. Overall, immigrants to rural
areas comprise only 2 percent of the total rural population. The single largest
group of rural immigrants is Mexican, whose share in nonmetro immigrants has
increased from 48 percent in the 1980s to 57 percent in the 1990s.
Recent immigrants in rural areas tend to be younger than immigrants in metro
areas; they are also, on average, younger than rural natives. This demographic
feature demands greater spending in rural public schools, especially in places
with concentrated immigrant populations.
Significantly, immigrants in rural areas have attained, on average, less
education relative to urban immigrants. High school completion rates, for
example, are lower among rural immigrants aged 25 and older than among their
urban counterparts. And this gap seems to be widening; metro immigrants who have
entered the country since 1980 report increasingly higher rates of high school
completion, whereas completion rates among recent nonmetro immigrants remain
low. Thus, adult basic education and job training are in heavy demand in rural
areas. These programs often require other services such as instruction in
English as a second language, job location, and child care. With limited albeit
reviving rural fiscal capacities, local resources will not be sufficient.
Federal and state support must be provided to help rural school systems serve
communities with concentrations of immigrant families and children.
IMPLICATIONS FOR RURAL SCHOOLS
Rural U.S. communities face
both opportunities and challenges that result from the recent demographic and
economic developments. On the one hand, rural areas enjoy the relatively strong
economic recovery that followed the depression of the 1980s, as illustrated in
the many baseline indicators. Policymakers and communities should take advantage
of this upswing to provide new resources for school improvement, ranging from
facility maintenance, staffing, and curriculum improvement to serving special
needs of at-risk groups. Telecommunications technology now makes it possible for
professionals to work away from urban centers. Rural communities must take
advantage of both the current economic recovery and technological developments
to sustain their growth. They should focus on updating school programs to
prepare youngsters for future development.
On the other hand, uneven growth across geographic regions and demographic
categories prompts many serious questions. As a recent California study
illustrates, intertwined issues of immigration, poverty, and substandard work
and living conditions among rural working families put tremendous pressures on
public services, including schools (Taylor, Martin & Fix, 1998). In
communities with extractive industries (e.g., farming and mining) or places with
large numbers of working poor and recent immigrants, depression has persisted
for decades. School systems in those communities are fiscally very weak and
typically face grave problems of deep poverty and poor academic performance. The
future still looks gloomy for children there. The need for strong state and
federal support seems inevitable. Active collaboration across levels and
agencies of government could remove the barriers blocking these children and
their families from reaching educational equity.
Beale. C. L. (1997). Nonmetro population growth
rebound of the 1990s continues, but at a slower recent rate. Rural Conditions
and Trends, 8(2), 46-51.
Cromartie, J. B. (1997). Migration contributes to nonmetro per capita income
growth. Rural Conditions and Trends, 8(2), 40-45.
Effland, A. B. W., & Butler, M. A. (1997). Fewer immigrants settle in
nonmetro areas and most fare less well than metro immigrants. Rural Conditions
and Trends, 8(2), 60-65.
Gibbs, R. (1997). Rural earnings edge up in the 1990s. Rural Conditions and
Trends, 8(2), 22-25.
Hamrick, K. S. (1997). Rural areas continue to benefit from the economic
expansion. Rural Conditions and Trends, 8(2), 4-5.
Hansen, K. A. (1997). Geographical mobility: March 1995 to March 1996. Census
Bureau Current Population Reports, No. P20-497. Washington, DC: Government
National Center for Education Statistics (1998). Condition of education 1998.
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Nord, M. (1997). Rural poverty rate edges downward. Rural Conditions and
Trends, 8(2), 31-34.
Rogers, C. C. (1996). Changes in the social and economic status of women by
metro-nonmetro residence. Agriculture information Bulletin No. 732. Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Economy Division, Economic Research
Swanson, L. L. (Ed.)(1996). Racial/ethnic minorities in rural areas: Progress
and stagnation, 1980-90. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture,
Economic Research Service.
Taylor, J. E., Martin, P. L., & Fix, M. (1997). Poverty amid prosperity:
Immigration and the changing face of rural California. Washington DC: Urban