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Census data vividly illustrate Minnesota's rural-urban divide

Percent of people below the poverty level in Minnesota during the last 12 months (for whom poverty status is determined).
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey
Percent of people below the poverty level in Minnesota during the last 12 months (for whom poverty status is determined).

You've heard the economists' warnings: America has divided along class lines that define vast differences in income, education and assets.

The same lines divide Minnesota, according to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In pockets of rural Minnesota, people are far poorer, older and less educated than the Minnesotans who live in select suburbs of the Twin Cities and neighborhoods of Rochester.

In Scott, Carver and Washington counties, for example, fewer than 5 percent of the people live below the poverty line. By contrast, more than 18 percent fall below the poverty line in Mahnomen, Nobles, Blue Earth and Beltrami counties.

It is important to note that there are pockets of poverty in Minneapolis and other cities, too, but the stark differences that jump out from the data cut across several counties.

Ethnicity is a factor in some of the differences: In largely white Carver, Washington and Scott counties, the median household income over the past five years has been higher than $78,000.  In Mahnomen County, where one in three residents is a Native American, that income was $38,409.

Percent of people 25 years and older in Minnesota who have completed a bachelor's degree.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey
Percent of people 25 years and older in Minnesota who have completed a bachelor's degree.

Education marks the brightest dividing line. About 12 percent of the adults in Todd and Red Lake counties have completed a bachelor's degree or higher. It follows that incomes and home values are lower in those counties, too. By comparison, 40 percent of the people in far wealthier Carver County have college degrees.

Minnesota has struggled with some of these divisions for decades. For example, poverty on and near Indian reservations has been a perplexing problem.

But economists and planners are warning that the spread between the haves and have-nots threatens to undermine the state's prosperity and productivity as baby boomers leave the workforce.

Minnesota mosaic in detail
This new census data gives us the closest look at our state since 2000. It is the first-ever release of five-year estimates from the American Community Survey, which was designed to replace the long-form questionnaires on the nationwide census conducted every 10 years.

These numbers are not from the 2010 census. That information, to be released starting on Dec. 21, will tell us the number of people living in a certain area at a given point in time. This week's release shows how they live.

Tuesday's data are based on a rolling annual sample survey mailed to about 3 million addresses between Jan. 1, 2005, and Dec. 31, 2009. Unlike the 2010 census, they are not nose-counts, but estimates based on surveys. Three million households are selected annually across every county in the nation. More than 100,000 households in the Twin Cities participated along with thousands more across the state.

The demographic profiles outlined by such estimates had been available in earlier years for cities and counties larger than 20,000 people. But that excluded many whole counties in Minnesota. And there was no way to see what was happening in most of the state's towns and urban neighborhoods. By pooling several years of survey responses, the ACS can generate detailed statistical portraits of smaller geographies

So, for the first time, we can see the mosaic of Minnesota right down to the level of census tracts.

From housing to immigrants to transit
From city halls to the state Capitol, Minnesotans will find much to glean. For example, Todd Graham who analyzes demographic forecasts and trends at the Metropolitan Council, said he'll use the data to help answer some key planning questions: What's the housing turnover in older suburbs like Robbinsdale, Crystal and Edina? Where are immigrants settling? Are transit users finding homes near bus routes?

"There are over 600 census tracts in the Twin Cities region, so we will have data for all of them," Graham said. "It will be wall-to-wall coverage of all of the geographies."

MinnPost will comb the statewide data, too, for future stories. And you can do it yourself to compare your own town or neighborhood with the county, state and nation. The Census Bureau provides tools here.

Meanwhile, a quick comb through the numbers reveals some highlights across Minnesota. 

Urban-rural differences
Rural Minnesota is older  —  with a median age of about 40, compared with 35 for city residents.

It also is less educated  —  15.8 percent of rural residents have bachelor's degrees, compared with 23.7 percent of city dwellers. 

A typical home costs a lot less in a rural area  —  with a median value of $187,700, compared with $214,200 in the cities. Rent is cheaper, too. And about 7.1 percent of the rural Minnesotans live in mobile homes.

Some of the money rural Minnesotans save on housing may have to go for vehicles. With few public transit options, about one-third of rural households own three or more vehicles, compared with 17.5 percent in metro areas.

Although more and more immigrants are finding homes in rural Minnesota, overall language diversity apparently is not following them. Some 95 percent of rural Minnesotans speak only English, compared with 88 percent in the state's urban areas.

While agriculture is an economic mainstay for rural regions, it is nowhere near the biggest job-creating engine. Just 6 percent of the state's rural labor force counted on agriculture to provide a job. In terms of job creation, it lagged far behind construction, manufacturing, education and retail.  

A few county rankings
Here's how Minnesota counties compare on a few of the categories measured in the survey:

  • Oldest. Traverse County had the greatest proportion of its population over 65  —  27.7 percent, followed by Aitkin County with 25.7 percent. For the state as a whole, it was 12.4 percent.
  • Youngest. Most of the south-metro suburbs, led by Scott County with just 6.8 percent of the population over 65.
  • Poorest. In Mahnomen County, 20.5 percent of the residents were below the poverty level. Close behind were Nobles, Blue Earth, Beltrami and Lake of the Woods counties.
  • Wealthiest. Easily, the suburbs ringing the Twin Cities to the south and east, led by Scott County with a median family income of $83,503. Close behind were Washington, Carver, Dakota and Sherburne counties.
  • Longest commute. Isanti County with 33.2 minutes (many workers in the county drive to work in the Twin Cities), followed by Kanabec, Chisago and Sherburne counties.
  • Most expensive homes. Carver County with a median value of $284,600 for owner-occupied homes.
  • Least expensive homes. Kittson County with a median value of $60,700.

Who's growing? Stay tuned.
It's important to note that this five-year survey is not a good measure of the impact of the Great Recession. It spans 2005 to 2009, so some of the questionnaires were completed before hard times hit.

It also isn't the best measure of trends over time. The Census Bureau plans to keep this five-year survey rolling and release updates every year from now on. That will give us a basis for saying whether the pockets of poverty and wealth are growing more extreme over time.   

Finally, it would be tempting to use these numbers to say which towns are booming in population gains and which are withering away as people die or leave. That information is far better measured by the 2010 census. Check back with MinnPost for those measures after Dec. 21!

She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (5)

The headline to this article is deeply misleading. Since when are suburbs "urban?"

This is not an urban/rural divide. This is a suburban/rural divide.

None of the counties you cite as the wealthy ones contain either Minneapolis or St. Paul -- our _actual_ urban areas. I find this false dichotomy in the headline and in some of the copy calling wealthy suburbs 'urban' extremely frustrating, and it contributes to a false polarization between cities and rural areas.

In fact, we city and rural folks have far more issues in common than not: underfunded schools, poverty issues, and crumbling infrastructure.

Looking at the maps that accompany this article, I don’t see any divide. For example, the poor areas (dark green) shade into the moderately well-off areas in every direction. These chartreuse areas, in turn, shade into light green areas where people are quite well off. As we approach the very urban core, things grow somewhat darker again. Anyone asked to draw a line marking the “divide” Sharon is referring to would find it impossible to do so.

If we reduce the figures to their starkest and simplest state—like sliding the contrast bar in Photoshop all the way to the right—we’ll see a radical difference between urban and rural, black and white. But that effect is as patently artificial as a manipulated photograph. All it really tells us is that urban and rural demographics are different, as are urban and rural life. Is that news? I think I first read about such things in Aesop's fable of the city mouse and the country mouse, which appeared about 2,500 years ago.

John with my eyes I certainly see a divide. The area extending from either border with St. Cloud being the epicenter. The area north and south of it are substantially different as is the soil fertility and general density of population.

Interesting piece, Sharon.

The concentration of, if not wealth, then affluence, is hard to deny. The Rochester area and the ring of suburban counties around the Twin Cities have the lowest poverty rates. A rough ring around the metro suburban counties, distorted just enough to include the Rochester area, encompasses much of the rest – with an few outliers – and then things turn green. Some darker than others, of course, but green, nonetheless. We can quarrel over the semantics of what constitutes “urban” and “rural” (I’m inclined to keep suburban separate from “urban,” though I’m well aware that in terms of population, metro suburbia holds a substantial number), but even making allowances for gradations, there still seems to be a vast difference between the concentrated affluence of a few counties and the varying degrees of poverty in the rest.

To make a crude analogy, it’s somewhat beside the point whether the slope from the bottom of the mountain to the top is gradual or steep – the difference in altitude between the top of the mountain and the base remains the same. Some will call it a divide, others will call it an artificial distinction. A century ago, getting by in a rural area on a quarter of the income of an urban/suburban dweller might have been done without too much inconvenience, but we no longer plow by hand or mule, nor walk 10 miles to school (uphill both ways), nor grow all of our own food. Farm families often spend as much as urban families at the grocery store. What that suggests to me is that, artificial or not, the distinction between rural and whatever you want to call “not-rural” seems a real one, and a sizable portion of that distinction revolves around money, or the lack thereof.

I love Aesop’s fables, but when the story of the country mouse and the city mouse was first circulating, Athens had a population of about 20,000, including slaves – barely enough to qualify as a very minor-league city nowadays. Everyone who was not a sailor or merchant or soldier was a farmer, and the difference in standard of living, once you moved out of the royal palace, was vastly smaller than what the census and the article are trying to illustrate in the current society.

I can see why it would be difficult, but I wish the names of the counties were shown. I have connections in far-flung parts of the state and would like to look them up without having to seek out the state atlas...