Panel Paper: Interdependent Inequalities in Rural America: The Ecosystems of the Left Behind

Friday, March 9, 2018
Room 24 (Burkle Family Building at Claremont Graduate University)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

David Catt, Lauren Davis and John Luke Irwin, Pardee RAND Graduate School


Globalization and urbanization has resulted in demographic, economic, and cultural shifts in the composition of the nation, largely producing a net positive benefit for many populations. However, large sections of the nation are not being included in the benefits of these trends. Rural populations are being “left behind,” yet no consistent metrics exist to characterize the experiences of these populations and geographic areas, nor is there an understanding of the variety of interactions among causal mechanisms that lead to a state of being “left behind.” The divide has manifested geographically and demographically in unequal outcomes across multiple sectors including, but not limited to, government services, education, health, environmental quality, and employment. This study seeks to identify characteristics of this divide, characterize intersectionality between sectoral shortcomings, and develop a roadmap for further research and alleviating solutions.


The rhetoric in the 2017 election laid bare a growing social, economic, and political gulf due to inequalities and disparities across America—in particular between “rural” and “urban” communities. Some areas have been advantaged by global economic, demographic and technological trends and have thrived over the last several decades, while others have stagnated and begun to decay. The most affected communities have seen significant differences in outcomes for population growth, economic growth, employment, educational attainment (possibly due to rural “brain drain”), health outcomes, and rates of poverty. These disparities have pervasive negative consequences that deeply impact many rural areas, such as the opioid epidemic, rising unemployment, and political polarization across racial, national, and class lines. A challenge in effectively addressing these disparities is that there is no understanding of how these components of inequality affecting outcomes in rural America fit together as a larger system in which policy interventions could be applied.

Research Aims

  1. Catalog the various definitions that have been (or could be) used to categorize communities along “rural-urban” and related spectra.
  2. Identify and describe data sources from multiple domains/sectors that are germane to measuring the variation of the different types of communities affected.
  3. Explore how declines in one sector may overlap or interact to exacerbate declines in other sectors. For instance, how are increases in unemployment, opioid abuse, and poor-quality healthcare related? How are certain trends or mechanisms coupled together?