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Downtown Durham, New Hampshire. Image courtesy of University of New Hampshire.

A Closer Look at Rural Populations: Multistate Research Monitors Changes and Issues Affecting Rural Areas

Guest Author
Sara Delheimer, Program Coordinator, Multistate Research Fund Impacts

Rural areas make up 72% of the nation’s land area, house 46 million people and are essential to agriculture, natural resources, recreation and environmental sustainability.

These areas are constantly changing, and many face complex challenges such as limited access to health care, education and jobs. Events like the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted how such challenges can lead to major disruptions to the environmental, economic, social and physical wellbeing of rural communities.

Understanding the dynamics of rural population change is key to effectively addressing current and future challenges. Hatch Multistate Research Project W4001: Social, Economic and Environmental Causes and Consequences of Demographic Change in Rural America has pioneered the use of integrated, data-intensive, scientific methods to identify solutions for rural community resilience.

W4001 member Shannon Monnat (right) with the Director of National Drug Control Policy, Jim Carroll, at the White House in 2019.
W4001 member Shannon Monnat (right) with the Director of National Drug Control Policy, Jim Carroll, at the White House in 2019. Image provided by Multistate Research Fund Impacts.

Building on the groundwork laid by previous iterations of the project, this group’s work has helped policymakers, businesses, utility companies, school administrators, law enforcement, health care providers and others make decisions that meet the needs of rural areas now and for generations to come.

Over the last three decades, the W4001 project and its predecessors have built a sustained multidisciplinary, multistate approach to rural population research. Project members have a wide range of skills and are familiar with diverse rural settings across the nation. This framework has allowed the project to assess rural populations in a comprehensive way while also drilling down into specific issues.

Population Trends

After discovering that rural populations are shrinking due to young adult outmigration, fewer births and increased mortality, project members created a database that details county-level, age-specific net migration trends. Hundreds of thousands of regional planners, insurance companies, school districts, senior housing developers, public health agencies and other stakeholders have used the database to understand rural needs and market demand and to inform infrastructure development and resource allocation.

W4001 members at the 2017 annual meeting in Fort Collins, CO.
W4001 members at the 2017 annual meeting in Fort Collins, CO. Image provided by Multistate Research Fund Impacts. 

These findings were also included in the President’s Agricultural and Rural Prosperity Task Force 2017 report to guide policy and programs that reflect current and projected trends. Research and outreach also helped numerous state governments prepare for and facilitate the 2020 Census. Research has also informed census data users about the limitations in using Census 2020 data to understand population change.

Health Crises

In recent years, the project’s research has helped address multiple major national health crises. For example, the project provided essential information about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural communities, guiding states’ social distancing policies, resource allocation, testing and reopening strategies. Project members also met with President Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task force to discuss issues related to rural population health and community development.

This research-backed information has helped save lives. In particular, researchers developed a user-friendly model of disease transmission and briefs on rural vulnerabilities related to age and chronic disease prevalence, disparities in testing and case and death counts, the spread of misinformation and economic impacts.

Additionally, this project was the first to identify rising rural opioid overdose rates and explanations for those trends. This information shaped national legislation, influenced the design of an interactive data visualization tool that helps communities assess and respond to the overdose crisis, and led to rapid resource allocation.

Natural Resources

Many rural communities and economies have been highly dependent on natural resources. This project is monitoring transitions in natural resource dependency, providing critical information for the resilience of rural areas.

In Utah, research and outreach raised awareness of changes in the natural resource dependency of rural communities and the effects these changes can have on well-being, including mental health. Research also helped the Governor of Michigan and state public policy makers understand the social justice implications of transitioning to renewable energy systems.

Natural Disasters

Many rural areas are highly susceptible to natural disasters. Recent research showed that there is a higher risk of flooding in rural tracts and tracts with larger proportions of older adults and socioeconomically vulnerable groups. These findings could help improve flood estimates and flood resource allocation. Researchers are also looking at the risk of wildfires to populations living in the wildland-urban interface.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access

W4001 members at Keweenaw National Historical Park Visitors Center during the 2019 annual meeting.
W4001 members at Keweenaw National Historical Park Visitors Center during the 2019 annual meeting. Image provided by Multistate Research Fund Impacts. 

Project members are looking at a variety of social justice issues in rural areas. The project’s research has shown that diversity and tolerance can create social capital and economic prosperity in rural areas, providing evidence for polices that help marginalized groups, such as disabled, ethnic minority and LGBTQ+ residents.

In particular, research on racial residential integration in rural areas raised awareness about place-based attributes that might promote racial equity. Studies also illuminated the health care needs of immigrant agricultural workers in rural areas and showed that there are more barriers to health care access for Hispanics in rural communities with historically small, but rapidly growing, Hispanic populations.

Other recent studies have addressed subprime lending and foreclosure issues in rural areas. The W4001 team also continues to refine the work of previous committees, which led to changes in the official measurements of poverty and underemployment and the distribution of safety net resources.

Sharing the Science

Working closely with other public and private institutions, federal agencies and professional societies has further enhanced the group’s analysis, outreach and impact. To share their findings and help build capacity to access, use and analyze demographic data for program development, decision-making, resource allocation and service provision, project members have:

  • Consulted at the highest levels of federal policy for committees within the Office of Management and Budget, U.S. Census Bureau, and U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy
  • Met numerous national and international NGOs, including the National Academy of Sciences, National Institutes of Health, United Nations and charitable foundations
  • Conducted briefings, workshops and consultations with state policymakers, Extension agents, community organizations, and other stakeholder groups
  • Delivered presentations to professional association and research conferences and published hundreds of peer-reviewed papers
  • Broadcast findings to the public through over 50 interviews with media outlets, including in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, NPR, AP News, Bloomberg News, Salon, The Hill, SLATE, The Guardian, Buzzfeed News, Vice, and more
  • Taught hundreds of undergraduate students and supervised numerous research projects and dissertations

Project Funding and Participation

W4001: Social, Economic and Environmental Causes and Consequences of Demographic Change in Rural America (2017-2022) was funded in part by the Hatch Multistate Research Fund, administered by USDA-NIFA, and by additional grants to project members. This project’s Hatch Multistate funding has been extended through 2027, and members continue to leverage external funding to extend and build on research to meet project objectives. See what the project hopes to accomplish next.

The group currently comprises 39 members from over 25 institutions. Members have expertise in sociology, geography, economics, natural resource management, Extension and other disciplines, and have won numerous teaching and research awards from their institutions and professional associations.

Participating Land-grant Universities include:
Auburn University, University of Connecticut, Cornell University, University of Illinois, Iowa State University, Kansas State University, Louisiana State University, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri, Montana State University, University of Nevada-Reno, University of New Hampshire, Ohio State University, Oregon State University, Pennsylvania State University, Utah State University, Washington State University and University of Wisconsin.

Other participating institutions include:
Brigham Young University, Macalester College, McGill University (Canada), Michigan Technological University, Middlebury College, University of Mississippi, University of Montana, Syracuse University, University of Texas at San Antonio, and USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Photo: Downtown Durham, New Hampshire. Image courtesy of University of New Hampshire. 

Farm Bill Priority Areas
Agriculture economics and rural communities
U.S. States and Territories
New Hampshire
New York

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