Exploring the Diversity of Rural America Through Interactive Mapping

The economic and social character of rural places varies greatly across America. Some rural areas depend on employment in farming and mining. Many of these communities face declining job opportunities and population loss. In contrast, other rural areas, particularly those rich in natural amenities, such as mountains and shoreline, have experienced positive economic transformation and rapid population growth. The Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America, an Internet-based mapping program on the ERS website, makes it easier to visualize the geographic distribution of economic and social conditions across America. The program’s graphic, user-friendly format enables one to map and explore such trends as rising Hispanic populations and increasing income disparities at the national, State, and county levels.

Maps generated through the program reveal overall population change, population change by race and ethnicity, unemployment rates, and median household incomes at user-specified geographic levels. Users can examine the distribution of these indicators across a variety of ERS classification schemes that categorize U.S. counties by size, degree of urbanization, and natural amenities, and rural counties by their primary economic activity. For example, a user interested in population change in farming-dependent counties can select the county typology codes data set, zoom in to the State or county to identify farming-dependent counties, and then select population change, 1990-2000. Each indicator’s median value and range can be displayed on request. These values and ranges can be stacked to make comparisons with other mapped areas.

Unlike pre-generated “static” map images, this program allows users to examine data, get information about the features on the map, move to different geographic levels, and change data layers at their own pace. For example, a user interested in income variability in North Carolina can select North Carolina, zoom in to a rural county such as Halifax County, select the median household income dataset, and compare the income distribution of Halifax County to other North Carolina counties and to the State as a whole. The program also displays for each indicator tabular data that can be downloaded into a text file for further analysis.

As more data are added to the program, its capabilities will expand. Future updates to the Rural Indicators Map Machine will enable users to map areas by high school and college completion rates, average commuting times to work, and other demographic variables. Additional features will give users more flexibility in generating maps and charts, along with the ability to download data in Microsoft Excel files.