Defining Rural Idaho Presents Challenges

Idaho is comprised of 44 counties – seven urban and 37 rural – as classified by the Idaho Department of Labor. Idaho fits snugly between economic urban powerhouse states Washington and Oregon and more rural neighbors Montana and Wyoming. The geographic placement of Idaho creates a unique situation.

The broad county categories of urban and rural are based mostly on population density. Though a simple classification system, it may have some significant restrictions. As time passes more people are leaving rural areas out of economic necessity such as seeking better job opportunities, education access and health care amenities. Migration out-flow data shows that rural counties like Madison and Clark have the highest rates of out-migration – up to 17 percent annually. Meanwhile, only Canyon and Ada counties have experienced an annual out-migration of only 3 to 6 percent. Though these changes mimic national trends, rural communities throughout Idaho are still active and pushing to thrive. Besides population density, there are many characteristics that separate a rural area from an urban one.

A general definition of rural, “relative to countryside versus a town,” does not do justice to the diverse characteristics Idaho’s rural counties possess. Living rural can mean college town living as in Madison and Latah counties – both with four-year universities. Communities like these with immediate access to postsecondary education are filled with young people seeking education.

Counties like Teton, Blaine and Bonner, where the natural amenities bring in large tourism dollars, fare quite well economically. Blaine County has the highest per capita income in Idaho at $34,517. However, these recreation hubs also have their downsides. Affordable housing, if available at all, is extremely hard to come by, and 8 to 11 percent of the families in these areas who earn income live below the poverty level. Most of the housing being built in these communities are second or third luxury homes for part-time residents or tourists. There are similar concerns for business owners. The cost of rental space or property for purchase is so excruciatingly high, many owners choose to move their businesses elsewhere for much lower rates.

Then there are the communities that still encapsulate what “rural America” has traditionally brought to mind. Shoshone, Benewah, Lincoln and Lewis counties and several more are filled with small towns that are powered by natural resource extraction, agriculture and manufacturing jobs. These counties and others like Clearwater, Caribou and Lemhi, are facing population declines in the younger age cohorts while experiencing a large influx of older age cohorts comprised of retirees. These trends challenge businesses to find workers and communities to fill necessary positions such as volunteer firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and elected officials.

As the younger workforce leaves these rural areas, they take their children with them. This phenomena is creating significant financial crises for schools within these communities – as enrollment drops so does funding, yet the cost of educating the number of children that remain stays the same. Students of high school age who are attending school are lower in rural areas. Some of Idaho’s traditionally rural counties like Clark County have high school enrollment rates as low as 53.5 percent, illustrating the growing divide in secondary education throughout Idaho communities.

Not unlike rural areas, urban counties each have unique benefits and barriers. Ada and Canyon counties, both in southwestern Idaho, have a combined population of more than 600,000 – two to three times the population of any other urban county in Idaho. As the largest portion of the Boise metropolitan statistical area, it is also by far the largest metropolitan area in the state and therefore has different needs, especially when it comes to making policy decisions. Idaho’s other five urban counties – Bannock, Bonneville, Kootenai, Nez Perce and Twin Falls – have very similar characteristics to one another. Their populations range from 63,000 to 151,000, they have extremely similar commuting patterns and a similar range of per capita incomes.  By lumping Ada and Canyon counties with the other urban counties across the state, issues that the other five, smaller, urban centers have may be over-looked or under-represented.

Upon examination, it’s obvious there is vast diversity throughout Idaho’s communities and could be concluded that they all do not fit in a one-size-fits-all box. The U. S.  Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (ERS) has created Rural-Urban Continuum Codes to help better classify counties beyond populations. The ERS also looks urbanization and adjacency to a metro area to better organize counties into similar demographic groups. Reclassifying Idaho counties is particularly important because the traditional category definitions no longer properly outline the characteristics of communities, and broad compartmentalization is doing an injustice to these communities’ needs. A specialized version of the Rural-Urban Continuum Coding system may prove most beneficial to Idaho and each of its communities.

rural-chart_hmSources: Idaho Department of Labor; American Community Survey, U.S. Census 2015 Five-Year Estimates; OnTheMap; United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 525-7268 ext. 4340