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Politicians love to talk about the urban-rural divide in Minnesota. But how much of a divide is there, really?

As with most things, it depends on how you look at it.

You might not know it this week with the Great Minnesota Get Together in full swing, but to believe some of the rhetoric during last year’s election season and the legislative session, there are really two Minnesotas.

One of those Minnesotas is full of lakes, farms, country roads and, depending on who you ask, a lot of hardworking folks who feel their needs aren’t being met and their message isn’t being heard, or misguided bumpkins who vote against their interests.

The other Minnesota, a metropolis straddling the banks of the Mississippi River, is made up of two growing cities and their suburbs, with increased infrastructure demands and, depending on your thinking, a bunch of people trying to make a good life for themselves and others, or a den of liberal busybodies taking up state resources and pushing their agenda on people who live far away.

The urban-rural divide is at the forefront of many conversations in Minnesota. How different is life, really, in different parts of the state?


In a lot of cases when people talk about the urban-rural divide, they seem to be talking about the metro versus the rest of the state.

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More than half of the people in Minnesota live in the 7-county metro, which is around 3,000 square miles or less than 3.5 percent of the land covered by the state.

But Minnesota has a lot of cities that aren’t in the metro area: Duluth, East Grand Forks, Mankato, Moorhead, Rochester, St. Cloud. To get a more nuanced picture of the state, Minnesota’s State Demographic Center, in a January report, breaks the state down into four types of places:

  • Urban areas (defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture), including the aforementioned cities and their adjoining areas and parts of the state near LaCrosse and Sioux Falls, with 73 percent of the state’s population;

  • large towns, such as Austin, Bemidji, Brainerd, Hibbing, Hutchinson, Willmar and Worthington, with 11 percent of the state’s population;

  • small towns, like Cannon Falls, Ely, Grand Rapids, Staples and Thief River Falls, where 7 percent of Minnesotans live;

  • and rural areas, largely agricultural areas outside these cities and towns with less than 2,500 residents and where most people don’t commute to a larger town. Eight percent of Minnesotans live in rural areas.

Breaking the state’s population down in this way reveals a few key differences.

Grayer Minnesota

Rural and small-town Minnesota are older than its cities. Sometimes by quite a bit. The median age in Twin Cities counties tends to be in the 30s, while in some counties in northeastern Minnesota around 50.

The breakdown across Minnesota geographies looks like this:

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A larger share of people in rural Minnesota are older than in urban Minnesota.
Source: Minnesota State Demographic Center

Interestingly, the youngest counties in Minnesota are actually large-town counties like Blue Earth, home to Mankato (median age: 30), Clay County (home to Moorhead; median age 32), and Beltrami and Stevens counties, home to Bemidji and Morris (median age: 33). All of these areas have higher education campuses and some have relatively sizable minority communities.

But broadly, Greater Minnesota is also grayer Minnesota. With age comes wisdom — and sometimes, different ideas about what’s important and how things should work. Age also brings different housing, medical and social needs.

Still, it’s important to remember scale, said State Demographer Susan Brower. While the share of the population that is graying may be smaller in urban areas, the silver tsunami is still huge because those areas are so populous.

“There’s quite a bit of similarity in how much rural areas will need to deal with aging compared to small towns, large towns and even urban areas,” Brower said.

Growth and contraction

In Minnesota, denser areas are becoming more dense, and sparsely populated areas are becoming denser less quickly or losing population altogether.

Average annual population change, 2010-15
Source: Minnesota State Demographic Center

Coupled with an aging population, a declining birthrate and migration to urban areas spells workforce shortage for employers across Minnesota, but one that’s expected to be felt especially acutely in parts of Greater Minnesota, which could put a damper on the economy there.

Minnesota’s urban and big town areas are expected to face a labor shortage, too, but have shown a greater ability to attract workers from outside the state — and country.

Jobs and income

Much of the angst surrounding the urban-rural divide has to do with economics. In some ways, there is an economic urban-rural divide and in other ways, not so much.

Country Minnesotans do work in a different industry mix than city Minnesotans. City dwellers are far more likely to work in professional and scientific fields, and financial, insurance and real estate fields than people in Greater Minnesota. Small town and rural-dwellers are more likely to work in natural resources jobs and construction jobs.

Employment by industry (with median earnings by industry)
City dwellers are far more likely to work in professional and scientific fields, and financial, insurance and real estate fields than people in Greater Minnesota. Small town and rural-dwellers are more likely to work in natural resources jobs and construction jobs.
Source: Minnesota State Demographic Center

People in cities make more money, too: the average full-time, year-round worker in an urban area makes nearly $51,000, more than $10,000 more than people in rural areas, small and big towns.

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Median earnings, full-time, year-round workers
In urban areas, full-time, year-round workers make more money than in other parts of the state.
Source: Minnesota State Demographic Center

But they also need more money to live: According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the cost of living for a two adults and two children is nearly $96,000 in Hennepin County, the most expensive place to live, compared to about $53,000 in Stevens County, the least expensive.

All four regions in Minnesota have relatively low poverty rates — 2 percent in urban areas, 4 percent in small and big towns and 5 percent in rural areas for full-time workers — but the differences between them are striking, with people in rural areas more likely to be living in poverty despite working.

“We found that rural, small town, and large town residents who work a full-time schedule are two or more times more likely to live in poverty than urban residents who do so,” the State Demographic Center report notes. Part-time workers were more likely to be in poverty in urban areas than in other parts of the state.

While some parts of Greater Minnesota tended to take longer to recover from the Great Recession, unemployment rates are currently low throughout most of the state — even lower in some non-metro areas than in the Twin Cities themselves.

Race and immigration

Certainly, Minnesota’s rural areas are more white on average than its urban areas.

“If you’re looking at the composition of the population, you see largely white, non-Hispanic populations in rural and small-town Minnesota. That’s less true of large towns and urban centers,” Brower said.

Rural areas and small towns are less racially diverse than big towns and urban areas in Minnesota.
Source: Minnesota State Demographic Center

It also has fewer immigrants.

But the share of nonwhite and foreign-born Minnesotans living outside the metro is changing, particularly in regional centers and agricultural areas where immigrants have moved for work.

A matter of perception

Jobs and income, age, race and place of birth: these are some of the ways rural and urban Minnesotans differ, at least in ways we can easily measure. But that’s often not the heart of the matter.

Katherine Cramer, the author of “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker” and a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor began studying the urban-rural divide in her home state in 2007 after she realized the depth of resentment of Milwaukee and Madison in other parts of the state.

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“The people I listened to felt like they were on the short end of the stick. They felt they were not getting their fair share of power, resources or respect. They said that the big decisions that regulated and affected their lives were made far away in the cities. They felt that no one was listening to their own ideas about how things should be done or what needed attention,” she wrote in the Washington Post.

In Minnesota, this chasm has been particularly visible in the debate over transportation funding. Often, this debate has been framed as light-rail for the cities versus roads for rural areas. That was a sticking point for people in some parts of the state, who feel that the metro isn’t paying its share into the state’s transportation fund.

An analysis by the Star Tribune earlier this year found that’s a misperception. It found that the metro contributes about 52 percent of the vehicle sales and fuel taxes and registration fees and receives 32 percent of it back in transportation funding (to be fair, rural areas have 87 percent of lane miles and got about two-thirds of the funding).

A new survey of rural and small town America, published this year by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post, found that perceptions like this often fuel the sense of an urban-rural divide.

“One of the big things we found is that people in rural areas are more likely to feel like they have a sense of shared values with other rural Americans, and people in cities don’t share those values,” said Liz Hamel, director of public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Hamel and her colleagues also found that rural Americans tended to have more pessimistic views about their local economy: more of them said they’d recommend young people move away in search of opportunity.

“People just felt like there wasn’t an economic future for young people, there was not good access to well-paying jobs,” Hamel said — even though urban and rural Americans reported being able to pay bills at similar rates.

Some differences are cultural, or a matter of perception. But as data suggest, there are also real differences between urban and rural Minnesotans, to a degree, who they are, and the jobs they work. There are also real similarities: on the whole, Minnesotans are pretty well-off economically and face a lot of the same challenges.

A report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development in Mankato notes the importance  of remembering that with problems common across the state — lack of affordable child care, transportation funding needs and a looming workforce shortage, to name a few — the solutions sometimes have to be different.

And even if urban and rural Minnesotans feel divided from one another, it might not matter much. A 2011 study by a Minnesota Rural Partners researcher documented the extent the economies of urban and rural Minnesota are interdependent. Like it or not, we’re all in this together.