Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

Report: Workers in Rural America Almost Just as Likely to Have Well-Paying Jobs, Amid Racial and Gender Disparities

Workers in rural America are almost just as likely to have good jobs as those in urban areas but face a number of distinct disparities as well, according to a recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).Martin Van Der WerfMartin Van Der Werf

The report, Small Towns, Big Opportunities, categorizes what constitutes a “good job” as a one that pays a minimum of – in 2022 dollars – approximately $43,000 for workers ages 25 to 44 and a minimum of approximately $55,000 for workers ages 45 to 64.

Contrary to stereotypes of a struggling, dated rural America, CEW researchers found that there is solid work to be had there. Per their criteria for a good job, researchers found that workers in the rural U.S. hold a proportionate share of good jobs – they make up 13% of the U.S. workforce (14.9 million out of 119 million) and hold 12% of good jobs in the country (7.4 million out of 63.3 million).

This finding came as a surprise, said report co-author Martin Van Der Werf, director of editorial and education policy for the CEW.

“You would think that people move to the cities and they have most of the best jobs and – I'm using a stereotype here – you would think [rural areas] might trail significantly behind,” Van Der Werf told Diverse. “But what we found is that 50% of jobs in rural areas are good jobs and 54% of urban jobs are good jobs. So they're comparable between rural and urban areas after you adjust for the cost of living.”

However, that’s not to say that everyone in rural areas has a fair shot at these good jobs. Similar to urban areas, men held a disproportionate number of good jobs in rural areas, according to the report. Despite making up 52% of the 25-to-64-year-old workforce in these regions, men hold 63% of the good jobs. This proportion makes them equal to men in urban areas – 52% of the workforce and 60% of good jobs – but outpace the percentage of women with good jobs in rural areas.

Women comprise 48% of the rural workforce but only 37% of the good jobs go to them, researchers found. This means they have it tougher in rural American than they do in urban settings, where they are 48% of the labor and have 40% of the good jobs there.

Men also make more money than women in rural areas, across the board, the report noted. From white-collar and blue-collar jobs to service professions and protective services, men were found to be paid more. Despite 41% of women in rural areas, compared to 26% of men, working white-collar jobs, the median earnings for women were lower than those of men, $50,000 and $71,000, respectively.

“The disparity in earnings could be the result of women being in lower-paying jobs than men within white-collar occupations or could be attributed to discrimination, either overt or implicit,” the report read.

White workers comprise the majority of the rural U.S. workforce (81%) and disproportionately hold 86% of the good jobs there. Not only that, but white rural workers are the only racial/ethnic group in which the majority of workers hold good jobs.

Those from other racial/ethnic groups – Black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, Pacific Islander – either held proportional or fewer good jobs in rural settings than the percentage of the rural workforce they make up, the report noted. 7% of the rural workforce is Black, yet Black workers only hold 5% of good jobs in these settings.

Rural areas present better odds for Hispanic and Pacific Islander workers to get good jobs – 37% and 42%, respectively – but these likelihoods still pale in comparison to the 53% for white workers. Though, the gap between the chances of Hispanic and white workers having good jobs is smaller in rural areas (16 percentage points) than in urban regions (25 percentage points in favor of white workers).

It is not surprising that Native Americans, African Americans, and women are trailing in the rural economy, Dr. Christopher Hayes, assistant teaching professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers-New Brunswick, said in an email.

“Women have been continually marginalized in American society, politics, culture, and the workforce for as long as these things have existed, with women of color, especially Native American and African American, faring the worst,” Hayes wrote.

Education is another facet that CEW researchers looked at, finding that a smaller percentage of rural workers held anything equal to or higher than a bachelor's degree (25%) compared to workers in urban areas (40%). However, it seems that those with associate’s degrees or lower fared better in rural areas than in urban ones. Rural workers with associate’s or lower held 65% of the good jobs in rural America, while the same can be said for just 44% of those in urban areas.

Having a higher degree than an associate’s just doesn’t pay as well in rural work, the report noted. People with bachelor's or graduate degrees had lower odds of having a good job in rural America than in urban America.

That being said, higher educational attainment still presents promise, researchers pointed out. Professions that require relatively high education, healthcare and technical work, make up a higher percentage of good jobs held than their presence in the rural workforce.

“Not everybody needs to get a bachelor's degree in rural areas, but there are a number of jobs in rural areas where a certificate, an associate's degree, some sort of postsecondary credential, is needed [for the job,]” Van Der Werf said. “We're finding that, in some cases, places that might be interested in expanding into rural areas say that the labor force just isn't trained enough, doesn't have the right credentials.”

The nation’s large investments into infrastructure could mean jobs for those in rural areas, such as building bridges, highways, and better broadband, but the people in these regions may not currently have the training for this kind of construction and maintenance, Van Der Werf said.

Notably, rural areas also have higher percentages of adults not participating in their workforce (26%), more so than in urban areas (20%), researchers found.

The report’s authors suggested that the U.S. bolster school counseling for rural schools, as well as increase holistic support for impoverished students, including having more access to public health and job placement services.

Focusing on improving education in rural settings – by way of free community college, bachelor’s degrees offered by community colleges, and more seamless transitions from grade school to training programs – would be valuable, Van Der Werf said.

And with advances in broadband connectivity, rural leaders can also take steps to draw in more remote workers and invite industries to set up satellite offices in their area, the report authors suggested.

Hayes expressed more skepticism and doubt over the advice in the report.

“The authors appear to embrace an ‘if you build it, they will come’ approach to a more educated rural workforce, but it is difficult to see how or why companies would spend substantially in sparsely populated areas,” he wrote. “Though, with the current conditions of working from home for white-collar workers, perhaps that would be a path forward, if a tenuous one, as it is not at all certain that prevailing trends will continue.”



A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics
American sport has always served as a platform for resistance and has been measured and critiqued by how it responds in critical moments of racial and social crises.
Read More
A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics