Why the Rural West Matters

/ Series: Rural West Insights

The rural West matters for at least three important reasons: the vitality of the region’s landscape; its impact on local, state, and national politics; and the future of the area’s people and communities.

  • Rural western lands are essential for our food, energy, water, and economy.
  • Voters in rural areas of the West have significant political power.
  • Many western rural communities are struggling socially and economically.
  • The new Rural West Insights series discusses the challenges and opportunities facing the rural West, focusing on its people and landscapes.

The rural West today provides essential food, energy, water and economic benefits; while playing a significant role in local, state, and federal politics. The region’s social and economic outlook, however, is mixed and many western rural communities are struggling.

This post is part of our Rural West Insights series that discusses the challenges and opportunities facing the rural West, focusing on its people and landscapes. Future reports will focus on demographics, the changing economy, the importance of non-labor income, and best fiscal practices for managing commodity booms.

Non-Metro Counties in the West

The share of rural Americans has been declining more than a century, and 1920 was the first census that found more Americans living in cities than rural areas. Today, roughly 85 percent of Americans live in urban settings with just 15 percent in rural areas, though the rural population covers 72 percent of the nation’s land.

The West surprisingly is more urban than the national average with 89 percent of the population living in metropolitan areas.

Economic activity is concentrated in more densely populated counties. In Washington State, for example, just two counties contain nearly half of the state’s total employment; and just two counties in Utah make up 61 percent of the state’s employment.

Overall, 97 percent of westerners reside in either Metropolitan or “Connected” counties—those connected to urban areas via airports with daily commercial services. The remaining three percent of the western population is spread across the nearly half of all western counties, containing more than 90 percent of the landscape.