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The Journal Gazette

October 16, 2016 1:01 AM

Community Survey reveals rural growth

Max Ehrenfreund | Washington Post

When a Census report recently announced a record increase in the typical American household’s annual income last year, the good news came with a caveat. The growth had been limited to towns and cities, the data showed, and there was no statistically detectable change in rural areas.

Some observers argued that the Census report demonstrated why Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s narrative of American economic decline was succeeding in rural areas of the country.

“Census figures confirmed, however, that much of the economic growth in 2015 was concentrated in large cities, not the rural areas where most of Trump’s support is located,” Don Lee wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

On Monday, the Census announced it was removing that finding from its report. Data on rural incomes from 2014 were “not comparable” to the data from last year, according to a statement from the bureau, because of a change in the geographic definition of rural areas.

“It is, in essence, a retraction,” said Arloc Sherman, a researcher at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He said that the Census had apparently made “an honest mistake.”

The flawed estimates were based on the Census’s Current Population Survey, one of several surveys conducted regularly by the bureau. The problem resulted from the fact that, as the population grows and Americans move from one part of the country to another, the Census must adjust the boundaries that define metropolitan areas. These adjustments, carried out every decade, altered the map for the Current Population Survey last year.

The changes in the boundaries moved almost 6 million people into metropolitan areas. These adjustments rendered meaningless the estimated change in rural incomes from one year to the next, according to the statement.

Instead, the statement directs readers to the American Community Survey – a separate survey, also conducted by the Census, that is designed to provide accurate information about smaller geographic areas.

The data from the American Community Survey show that average household incomes in metropolitan areas increased by 3.6 percent last year. In rural areas, incomes increased 3.4 percent, according to an analysis by Sherman and a colleague.

These figures suggest that economic progress last year was more or less evenly shared between rural and urban areas, in contrast to the results from the Current Population Survey, which suggested that these improvements were concentrated in cities. The Current Population Survey had indicated a 5.2 percent average increase in household incomes nationally – the greatest annual increase in five decades of data recorded by the Census – and a 7.3 percent increase in metropolitan areas.

News reports typically focus on the overall figures from the Current Population Survey, because of the two surveys, it is the one designed to provide information about national trends. The American Community Survey, by contrast, is focused on data at the local level. Both surveys, however, include national averages in household incomes, and sometimes the results can diverge.