Rural Communities

Legacy + Change


By Cornelia Butler Flora

By Jan L. Flora

By Stephen P. Gasteyer

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Communities in rural America are a complex mixture of peoples and cultures, ranging from miners who have been laid off in West Virginia, to Laotian immigrants relocating in Kansas to work at a beef processing plant, to entrepreneurs drawing up plans for a world-class ski resort in California’s Sierra Nevada. Rural Communities: Legacy and Change uses its unique Community Capitals framework to examine how America's diverse rural communities use their various capitals—natural, cultural, human, social, political, financial, and built—to address the modern challenges that face them.
Each chapter opens with a case study of a community facing a particular challenge, and is followed by a comprehensive discussion of sociological concepts to be applied to understanding the case. This narrative, topical approach makes the book accessible and engaging for undergraduate students, while its integrative approach provides them with a framework for understanding rural society based on the concepts and explanations of social science

This fifth edition is updated throughout with 2013 census data and features new and expanded coverage of health and health care, food systems and alternatives, the effects of neoliberalism and globalization on rural communities, as well as an expanded resource and activity section at the end of each chapter.





IN THIS SECTION WE PRESENT AN OVERVIEW OF THE DIVERSITY OF RURAL communities and the community capitals that contribute to their degree of environmental health, social inclusion, and economic security. How is rural defined? What is the variation in ruralness across the United States? Watch the first episode, Who Cares? From the “Rural Communities: Legacy and Change” video instructional series ( to get an introduction to the book and the some of the places discussed in the text. It addresses why rural America is important to us as a nation, what steps should be taken to respond to rural communities in crisis, and what the future holds for these rural areas. In it, rural people show how the provision of water, recreation, minerals, and biodiversity come from rural areas and how the production of those shared resources contribute to values and cultures that support people and places. The differences among rural areas in the United States are shown, as are the different assets and issues that stem from those differences. Rural communities are sources of innovation in working together to resolve issues as they also increase their dependence on the rest of the world. Those who are rural by choice versus rural by heritage sometimes conflict, but they can come together through their commitment to place.

It will help in doing the assignments to choose a community with which you are familiar to analyze and to apply the concepts learned. If it is an urban community or neighborhood, it can help you understand what is unique about rural communities and what characteristics all communities of place share.

It is increasingly difficult to analyze rural-urban differences, as less and less data are available on smaller places (known as small-area data). Except for seven basic questions still asked on the census, the American Community Survey (ACS) has replaced the decennial Census of Population and Housing. The 2000 Census was the last that included the full battery of social, economic, and housing characteristics. The ACS has the advantage that it is conducted annually rather than once every ten years. As a survey rather than a complete census, it may in fact be more accurate than the census for larger jurisdictions. However, for smaller places and populations it is necessary to combine data for three or five consecutive years for the data to be reliable. A National Research Council panel (Panel 2015) analyzed options for increasing the accuracy of small-area data gathered in the ACS, but as is pointed out by Chevat and Lowenthal (2015), there is need for funds to test out new approaches for more efficient and accurate data collection, but such efforts are complicated by a failure of Congress to appropriate adequate funds, except in the couple years leading up to the decennial census. As government shutdowns, budget sequestrations, and cuts in research budgets and research personnel increase, separate rural data analysis is easy to drop, as there are few constituencies organized to demand it. An important source of available rural data—and all in one place—is the Atlas of Rural and Small Town America (Economic Research Service 2011).

Rural areas are increasingly linked to urban ones through migration, information technology, and social media, with less obvious differences in important norms, values, and symbols. Viewing rural, suburban, and urban as a continuum with a high degree of interaction does not deny the importance of considering rural communities, but it does suggest that the lessons learned about how community capitals work in rural communities can give us great insights into other settings as well.





Christine Walden grew up in paradise. The daughter of schoolteachers in Mammoth Lakes, California, Christine spent her childhood surrounded by the majestic peaks, lush forests, and crystal-clear lakes of the Sierra Nevada range, nurtured by the closeness possible in a town of two thousand. In 1954 an all-weather road and a double chairlift opened, beckoning skiers to the north face of Mammoth Mountain. By 2013 the town’s population was over three times what it was in 1970, the year Christine’s parents first came to the community. Golf courses replaced horse pastures, as befits a major tourism destination. Multimillion dollar vacation homes adorn hillsides that once were covered with trees and native shrubs. Christine and her husband now work as teachers in the same school district for which her parents worked. But Christine no longer lives in Mammoth Lakes. Land development and speculation have driven housing costs beyond what the salaries paid by the local school district can support. The median house or condo costs over half a million dollars, and the average rent is over $1,200 a month. So the family lives in Bishop and commutes forty miles each way to work. Paradise has grown too expensive!

Wade Skidmore grew up working in coal mines. Part of the fifth generation of Skidmores to live in McDowell County, West Virginia, Wade in his childhood was shaped by what was underground rather than what could be enjoyed on the slopes of the rugged Appalachian Mountains. He attended school in Welch, the county seat, only through the tenth grade. Working in the mines didn’t require much education and offered him a chance to work at his own pace. For a time the work was steady and the pay was good. But as the price per ton of coal dropped, Wade found that he had to work harder to make ends meet. Then coal-loading machines came along—machines that could do the work of fifty men. Then some veins started giving out. Wade’s children are now growing up in poverty: substandard housing, water pollution from mine runoff, raw sewage in the streams, poor schools, and high illiteracy rates. McDowell County, which lost approximately 20 percent of its population between 2000 and 2013, has unemployment that is nearly twice as high as in West Virginia as a whole. Wade Skidmore lives in a region and among people trapped in persistent poverty. To make things worse, the town is susceptible to floods, as extreme weather events have increased in the last twenty years. A recent flood seriously damaged the Skidmore home located on the bank of the Tug Fork River—the only flat land around.

Ray and Mildred Larson face a decision. They farm near Irwin, Iowa, on land that they and Mildred’s three siblings inherited, and they split earnings from the farm four ways. They are worried that they will not be able to pay off the new planter and combine (combination harvester) they contracted to buy when corn prices were high. When hog prices were low in the late 1990s, Mildred’s parents got out of hog raising, growing only corn and soybeans. The Larsons get their seed, fertilizers, and herbicides from the Farm Services Cooperative in nearby Harlan, Iowa, and bought their new equipment from Robinson Implement, Inc. in Irwin. With the increase in corn prices beginning in 2007, they shifted their land from their previous rotations that included small grains into corn. Land prices increased very rapidly, making it difficult to acquire more land. So they plowed up marginal land they had put into the Conservation Reserve Program in order to plant more corn.

Irwin is a farming community that was settled as the railroads pushed westward across the Great Plains during the nineteenth century. The descendants of the early settlers still own some of the homesteads, such as the Larson place. The population of Shelby County declined 10.5 percent between 2000 and 2012, although nonfarm employment increased and unemployment is low. Ray and Mildred both hold full-time jobs off the farm. They wonder whether they should rent out their land or sell their equipment and find a farm management company so someone else will farm it.

Ray and Mildred know that in either case, the new operators would probably not buy machinery and inputs locally. They are also considering renting land from retired farmers to achieve the economies of scale needed to pay for their new machinery, even though corn and soybean prices are low, and cut back their paid employment during planting and harvest season so they can cover all the land.

Billie Jo Williams and her husband, Maurice Davis, are moving to Atlanta. Raised in Eatonton, Georgia, sixty-five miles from Atlanta, they grew up enjoying the gentle hills and dense stands of loblolly pine in Putnam County. Eatonton is home; both the Williams and Davis families go back to plantation days. But Billie can’t find a job. She just finished a degree in business administration at Fort Valley State College, and Putnam County is growing rapidly, its population increasing more than 14 percent between 2000 and 2013. But Eatonton’s population is decreasing, and other than in the apparel factory (which has now closed and moved overseas) or as domestic workers for the rich families who built retirement homes on the lake, there were few jobs for African American women in Eatonton when Billie Jo graduated high school. Unemployment rates are higher than for the state as a whole, and 31.4 percent of the population lives in poverty. Manufacturing, the major employers, are moving to other countries where people will work cheaper. Maurice settled into a factory job right out of high school but figures he can get something in Atlanta. The situation seems strange. In the twentieth century Eatonton did better than most communities in adapting to change, shifting from cotton to dairying to manufacturing and now to recreation/retirement economies. But in the twenty-first century most African Americans have a hard time finding jobs that pay a living wage.

Which is the real rural America—ski slopes of California, mines of West Virginia, farms in Iowa, or exurban resort and manufacturing communities in Georgia? Family farms and small farming communities dominate popular images of rural areas, in part because politicians, lobbyists, and the media cultivate those icons, supporting the myth that agricultural policy is rural policy. In fact, rural areas embrace ski slopes, mines, manufacturing, farms, retirement communities, Native American reservations, bedroom communities, and much, much more. In the twenty-first century, rural communities differ more from each other than they do, on average, from urban areas.

The diversity found among rural communities extends to the problems felt as each responds to the environmental, social, and economic change under way. Some rural and remote communities share the concerns of Irwin, wondering at what point their population will become too small to support a community. A few farming communities have grown as they take on the role of regional retail and service centers for surrounding small towns. The amenity-based community of Mammoth Lakes, California, faces rapid growth. Its citizens are grappling with how to protect both the environment and the small-town character they value. In Eatonton, Georgia, a long commute from several large urban centers, economic growth has been substantial with the expansion of the resort economy and nursing homes, but its majority black citizens have not shared equally in its success. Eatonton’s population is highly transient, and its poverty rate remains higher than that of the state of Georgia as a whole. Those living in mining-dependent McDowell County face poverty and high out-migration, despite the richness of the land surrounding them. Nearly one-third of the population falls below the poverty level, and median income is nearly $16,000 less than in the rest of West Virginia.

Despite the stereotype that life in the country is simpler, rural residents face many of the same issues and concerns urban residents do, plus those related to dispersion and distance. Indeed, rural and urban areas are linked. The garbage produced in New York City may find its way into landfills in West Virginia. Plastic products in Chicago are made from Iowa corn, grown with fertilizers that increase productivity but may endanger rural water supplies. A housing boom in San Francisco creates jobs in the lumber industry in Oregon. However, the jobs last only as long as the forests. Air-quality concerns in Boston could shut down coal mines in Pennsylvania.

This book examines the diversity of rural America—its communities, the social issues they face in the twenty-first century, and the histories that explain those issues. It also addresses ways that rural communities have built on their history and their increasing connectedness to creatively address those issues.


Giving a place a particular characteristic, thus “naming” it, suggests how people and institutions act toward it. When governments establish labels for places, they are generally for administrative purposes, to determine which places are eligible for specific government programs. When scholars establish labels, it is generally for analytical purposes, but because governments collect data, scholars often fall back on government labels. Media and advertisers use place labels such as “rural” to evoke particular images. In a consumer society rural is often defined by what one shops for in a place. Box 1.1 shows various governmental definitions of rural. In the past, small size and isolation combined to produce relatively homogeneous rural cultures, economies based on natural resources, and a strong sense of local identity. But globalization, connectivity, and lifestyle changes with shifting income distributions have changed the character of rural communities; they are neither as isolated nor as homogeneous as they once were. Figure 1.1 shows dispersion of population across the United States.

FIGURE 1.1 Urban and rural distribution.

Source: Adapted from US Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau. The National Survey of Children’s Health 2007. Rockville, Maryland: US Department of Health and Human Services, 2011. Data from WWAMI Rural Health Research Center, 2006 ZIP Version 2.0 Codes.


Part of the rural image is isolation, a sense that rural people live out their entire lives in the towns in which they were born. This was never true for all rural people. Loggers, miners, farmers, and a host of others routinely moved to wherever they could find work or land. However, some rural people were isolated. In parts of McDowell County, mountain men and women lived in “hollows” in the hills, living on game and part-time work in cutting wood or construction and creating a rich culture of self-sufficiency. Canals, railroads, highways, and airways have altered much of that isolation. Improved road systems have also changed rural residents’ occupations and spending patterns. Those living near urban areas often commute to work, living in one town and working in another. They buy many of their products in suburban malls. In regions where no metropolitan center exists, small towns, such as Harlan in Shelby County, have grown to become regional trade centers for towns like Irwin as people travel to the next-largest city to purchase products and obtain services.

Communication technologies have had an even greater impact on reducing isolation. Blogs and Twitter link rural residents with people who share their interests around the world. Rural residents now watch opera from New York, football games from San Francisco, the ballet from Houston, and congressional deliberations from Washington, DC, through satellite dishes. Rural people have become as literate, informed, and enriched as their urban counterparts. There is still a rural-urban connectivity divide, however: many residents on reservations in the Great Plains do not have phone service, much less broadband Internet connectivity, and wireless strategies based on satellites still present problems in steep mountain areas. The isolation that distance once imposed is much less than it once was, yet communities that are rural and remote and those that are persistently poor are much more isolated than rural residents in areas of urban sprawl and high rural amenities.

Origins and Change

The Ioway Sioux were some of the original settlers along the rich Nishnabotna River bottoms in Shelby County. In Mono County the Northern and Owens Valley Paiute walked through what is now Mammoth Lakes as part of their sacred rituals to ensure success in their hunting and gathering. Shawnee and Delaware occasionally hunted in what is now McDowell County. The Creek occupied mid-Georgia, including Putnam County, prior to being forced west, first by the Cherokee, then the Europeans. The US government then forcibly removed the Cherokee to Oklahoma, where many lost their lives on the Trail of Tears (Nunna daul Tsuny).


       BOX 1.1      Definitions of Rural

County Designations

                  Metropolitan counties: Over 50,000 people within a county, mostly in an urban core

                  Nonmetropolitan counties: Those with fewer than 50,000 and/or no urban core

                  Micropolitan: 10,000 to 49,999 with an urban core

Place Designations

                  Rural (US Census): Open countryside or towns of fewer than 2,500 outside urbanized areas

                  Rural (Statistics Canada): Nonurban; not continuously built-up areas with population of 1,000 or more and a density of fewer than 400 people per square kilometer

Eligibility Designations

(Definitions fixed by statute made by Congress or regulation made by the administration.)

Sample population size cutoffs for qualifying for rural programs:

                 rural housing—20,000 or fewer

                 telecomm loans—5,000 or fewer

                 water and waste grants—10,000 or fewer

                 intermediary relending loans—25,000 or fewer

                 rural business programs—50,000 or fewer outside a metropolitan area

                 electric, prior to 2000, 1,500 or less in 1993; as of 2000, 2,500 or fewer


Adapted from Andrew F. Coburn, a. Clinton MacKinney, Timothy D. McBride, Keith J. Mueller, Rebecca T. Slifkin, and Mary K. Wakefield. 2007. “Choosing Rural Definitions.” Issue Brief #2, March. Rural Policy Research Institute Health Panel. Also online; available:

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Economic Research Service. “Measuring Rurality: What is Rural?” Briefing Rooms, updated March 22, 2007. Online; available:


Commercial, then industrial interests brought Europeans, Africans, and Asians to rural America. National interests encouraged Europeans to settle land. Trappers of fur for British, Spanish, French, and then American trading companies pushed west across Canada and the United States. Cotton and tobacco, both indigenous to the Americas, were grown in the southern United States, where large land grants created a landowning class, and slavery enabled them to plant labor-intensive, land-depleting crops. Both cotton and tobacco were export crops from the South, and both depended on cheap labor and abundant land.

Railroads were key in settling many of the rural and remote communities in the western United States in the 1860s. Government land grants were used as incentives to build the railroads, and US railroads advertised widely in Europe and the eastern United States to sell land to people who wanted to improve their lot in life. Growing cities such as New York, Chicago, and Boston needed cheap food to feed the workers that fueled their industrial revolutions, and grain grown by the new settlers filled trains. The Chicago-Rock Island & Pacific Railway laid out townships, and entrepreneurs from Denmark and Germany recruited their compatriots to buy land from them and recreate their old cultures in a new land. For example, in 1872 Emil Flushe began selling railroad land west of Irwin, recruiting Catholics from Germany to come to a town he named Westphalia, just as he already had named Westphalia, Minnesota, and would name Westphalia, Kansas, as he followed the railroad west.

African Americans were a critical part of the land-extensive, labor-intensive agricultural system of the South. As lands wore out, plantation owners moved west, to the edge of the Oconee Forest in Putnam County, taking their slaves with them. Later, freed slaves demanded land as reparation for their forced labor, and some were given forty acres of the cottoned out land. After Reconstruction many ex-slave owners reclaimed their land. Other ex-slaves bought land collectively, where they raised a variety of crops and animals. Some lost their land under a heavy debt load, and others sold their land and became sharecroppers. By 2013 there were 13 black or African American farm operators (7 percent) enumerated among the 165 farms in the county, even though African Americans make up over 30 percent of Putnam County’s population. Prior to the Civil War African Americans escaping slavery in Missouri and Arkansas crossed through Shelby County on their way to freedom. African Americans who had worked in the coal mines in Birmingham, Alabama, moved to McDowell County to open the mines there, even though their children would attend segregated schools until the late 1950s. Asians, particularly Chinese, who helped build the western half of the intercontinental railroad participated in the mining boom in Mammoth Lakes in the 1880s and 1890s. When they were forbidden to engage in mining, they provided essential services to the miners, such as cooking and washing.

In Mono County, where Mammoth Lakes is located, the Hispanic population has increased from very few in 1970 to nearly 28 percent of the population in 2013, where they hold many service jobs in the tourist industry and construction jobs as the housing density increases and new resort properties are built. Living extremely frugally, they manage to live near where they work. Reservations in Inyo County are the home of descendants of the original Paiute residents.

Spanish and Native American cultures occupied much of the West long before US expansion. The abolition of slavery left African American families scattered throughout a rural South extending from the Atlantic Ocean to central Texas and as far north as southern Kansas and Missouri. From 1910 onward migrant workers from Mexico followed the harvest as far north as Maine in the east and Washington State in the west, entering new destinations in the Midwest and the South at the turn of the twenty-first century. As a result of the war in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, including very distinct cultures such as the Hmong, moved to rural areas and excelled in both fishing in the Gulf of Mexico and raising vegetables around large cities. Like the Mexicans, they also filled jobs in rural areas that US-born rural residents were unwilling to do in animal production, such as dairies and meat packing plants. But as they saved money by having many workers per household and through low consumption, they moved to urban or coastal areas.

As other conflicts have created and continue to create refugees, migrants from Sudan, Myanmar (Burma), Bosnia, and Afghanistan have settled in rural communities as well as large cities. This changes the religious as well as racial composition of areas that were once extremely homogeneous.

When counties are ranked by the extent of ethnic diversity, rural counties are among both the most and least diverse. Fourteen of the thirty most diverse counties are rural. Six of these lie in rural New Mexico, where the San Juan, Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, and Nacimiento mountain ranges are home to Latino, Native American, and European cultures. The other rural counties among the most ethnically diverse are in Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.

In contrast, half of the fifty counties that are the least diverse are located in just two states, Nebraska and Iowa. Gosper County, in the southern tier of Nebraska, reported only one resident who was not white in the 1990 census. By 2010 there were fourteen African Americans and eighteen Native Americans living there. Shelby County, where Irwin is located, was 98 percent white in 2010. Parts of the rural South and Southwest are also homogeneous, especially on reservation lands or in counties where either black or white populations are the majority.



  • Rural Communities: Legacy and Change is a well-organized, highly readable text introducing students to rural sociology. The use of personal vignettes to illustrate key concepts and the theoretical Community Capitals Framework to facilitate discussion of critical components of rural communities help students come to understand the dynamics of stability and change in those communities.”
    —Liza Kuecker, Western New Mexico University

    “…a cogent overview of the theory, issues, and applications that drive current-day rural studies. The book is very readable, and provides adequate, thorough coverage. If [undergraduate students] engage the material they will find a wealth of stories and case studies that illustrate and highlight the issues facing rural communities today.”
    —Ben Amsden, Plymouth State University

    “The Floras have provided creative and useful sociological analysis of rural populations and rural living which is deeply and convincingly argued.”
    —Kathryn Hovey, New Mexico State University

    Praise for the Previous Editions:

    “This text contributes to pedagogical effectiveness, student learning and empowered community practice. The text is well written, clearly organized, engaging, insightful and readable for a wide range of audiences.”
    Teaching Sociology
  • “I have used this book since the first edition came out. The key strength of that edition and each edition that followed has been the conceptual framework of community capitals that helps students understand the connectivity between social, cultural, economic, and political issues and how they relate to the built and natural environments. This framework allows students to comprehend the complexity of community and to identify strengths and weaknesses in their own communities that can be used in promoting purposeful and positive change.”
    —Conner Bailey, Auburn University

    Rural Communities is the most complete textbook that I know of for the social science approach to understanding communities. The Floras are successful in combining basic concepts and theories of community with practical examples that students and professionals can use for their work and in their own communities. The book challenges students to take a critical look at communities, including underlying processes and structures that exist in all communities.”
    —Richard Maurer, University of Kentucky

On Sale
Aug 4, 2015
Page Count
448 pages

Cornelia Butler Flora

About the Author

Cornelia Butler Flora is Charles F. Curtis Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University and Research Professor at Kansas State University.

Jan L. Flora is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology and Community Development Extension at Iowa State University and Research Professor at Kansas State University.

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