Income Inequality across the Rural-Urban Continuum in the United States, 1970–2016*

Brian C. Thiede, Jaclyn L.W. Butler, David L. Brown, Leif Jensen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


The growth in macro-level income inequality in the United States is well established, but less is known about patterns of inequality at subnational scales and how they vary between and within rural and urban localities. Using data from the Decennial Census and American Community Survey, we produce estimates of within-county income inequality from 1970 to 2016 and analyze differences in inequality levels, the persistence of high (low) inequality, and populations' exposure to high (low) inequality across the rural-urban continuum. We find that income inequality has historically been higher in non-metropolitan than metropolitan counties, but inequality levels converged by 2016 due to growing inequality in metropolitan counties. Additionally, levels of inequality were generally persistent within counties over time, except that counties characterized by low inequality in 1970 were unlikely to remain as such in 2016. Third, non-trivial shares of the metropolitan population resided in low-inequality contexts in 1970, but virtually none of the U.S. population resided in such places by 2016. Residence in high-inequality counties is normative in rural and urban America. This statistical analysis provides an updated portrait of income inequality across the rural-urban continuum, and should spur additional research on stratification in rural America during an era of growing inequality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)899-937
Number of pages39
JournalRural Sociology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


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