A recent Gallup poll found that the preference for rural living in the United States has seen a resurgence since 2018. Back then, just 39% of Americans expressed a preference for rural or small-town living over urban or suburban life. Now, that figure stands at 48%—almost identical to 2001, when the poll was taken after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
It’s clear that with another disaster on our hands—a global pandemic—Americans really want to get out of the cities.
According to the poll, 48% of respondents expressed a preference for rural living, 27% for big city/small city living, and 25% for the suburbs. The suburbs had the steepest drop—6% fewer people want to live there now compared to 2018.
This seems contrary to what the real estate world has been seeing: suburban growth. What’s more interesting about the Gallup poll is that while Americans express the desire to live in rural areas, most actually wind up in the suburbs. Data from Pew Research in 2018 found that 55% of Americans lived in the suburbs, despite only 31% wanting to live there at the time.
Furthermore, the poll asked respondents where they currently lived and how satisfied they were living there. Respondents in rural areas were most content—75% wanted to remain in a rural area. As for suburbanites, 48% were content, and city dwellers, 47%. While Gallup didn’t ask this question in 2018, they did in 2001. Suburban happiness was posted at 67% in 2001 while city happiness was at 53%. An even higher 86% of people living in rural areas were happy there, 11% more than now.
Across just about all demographics, there was a rise in the preference for rural living. The highest percentages came from:
- Men: 52%
- White American: 52%
- Adults over the age of 55: 52%
- Midwesterners: 52%
- Members of the Republican Party (66%)
The largest preference changes since 2018 were from:
- Non-white Americans: 27% to 39%
- Southerners: 38% to 50%
- Republicans: 53% to 66%.
Why are these trends occurring?
Basic science tells us that when a highly infectious disease is spreading, living in a densely populated area means you’re more likely to catch the disease. Considering cities and suburbs are usually tightly packed with rows of houses or layers of apartment units, it’s ripe for spreading an airborne virus.
Counter this to the viewpoint of rural areas and small towns as being isolated from civilization and sparsely populated. It makes sense that most Americans would express preference for this type of environment during these harsh times. However, while rural areas may not spread the virus as quickly or efficiently as a city or suburb, the challenges each community faces could be intensified in comparison.
For instance, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that rural areas are at especially high risk of COVID-19 because of the demographic, logistical, and economical challenges that face these communities. Many residents of smaller communities are retirees or people ages 55-plus—two segments most at risk of COVID-19. Furthermore, it’s estimated that up to one-third of residents living in rural areas suffer from a disability, a rate 9% higher than in urban areas. On top of that, access to medical facilities, medical technology, doctors, and better care can be hit-or-miss depending on the region, potentially leading to increased COVID-19 deaths or insufficient testing and care.
Despite these challenges, most Americans continue to view rural areas as the safest for their families during times of crisis. This is evident, as Gallup found a nearly identical slice of Americans viewed rural areas more favorably after 9/11, where they felt less likely to be targeted by terrorism.
The remote economy
The pandemic brought in a new era of work, giving Americans more mobility than ever before. Nowadays, as long as there’s a computer, a stable internet connection, and a job that’s remote, anyone can work from anywhere—including rural areas.
There’s evidence that the new remote economy has allowed Americans to move wherever they want, but movement is not happening as rapidly as you’d expect. In fact, fewer Americans are moving now than at any point during the last 70 years. This is likely due to uncertainty surrounding the economy and COVID-19. Some don’t want to buy a home in case the market crashes. Some are simply priced out of the heavily appreciating housing markets throughout the nation.
There’s also connectedness concerns in rural areas that may cause someone to stay in the city or the suburbs even if they would prefer living elsewhere. Despite tremendous progress and government initiatives, there are areas throughout the country that still lack access to broadband.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 90.4% of counties in the United States have access to fixed broadband. That leaves nearly 10% of the nation without it or with limited service. Most of these areas are very rural, making it difficult for remote work to take place and potentially harming the local economy even more so as government lockdowns continue.
A lot of people want to move to rural areas because they see a real opportunity to open a business in an expanding market, pay lower taxes, or take advantages of government sponsored programs that foster growth and development in rural areas.
For example, government agencies like the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) gives out grants to businesses opening in qualifying rural areas throughout the nation. This is a huge incentive to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to take advantage of a smaller market, especially one ripe for expansion.
Furthermore, some of these less-developed areas have lower taxes, lower costs of living, and lower housing prices. Movers from Silicon Valley, where standard single-family housing prices can easily clear $1 million, will find the median listing price of $278,000 in Greenville, South Carolina appealing.
As long as smaller markets continue to expand, remote work stays trendy, and the pandemic calms down, it’s very possible we could see a surge in rural living though the next decade.