November 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 7

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Congressional Briefing on Aging in Rural America:
21st Century Trends

E. Helen Berry, Utah State University and Nina Glasgow, Cornell University

Once rural America was young; now it is a lot older, resulting in opportunities and challenges for nonmetropolitan areas. The Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) hosted a congressional briefing in Washington, DC, on June 20, 2013, that addressed those prospects.

(From left to right) E. Helen Berry, Joachim Singelmann, Nina Glasgow, Douglas Gurak, Howard Silver, Kenneth Johnson

In an overview at the briefing, Nina Glasgow (Cornell University) observed that, in 2012, nearly 17 percent of the nonmetropolitan population was age 65 or older compared with only 13 percent in metropolitan areas. The last of the baby boomers will reach age 65 by 2030 when one in five Americans are expected to be of retirement age. A majority of the retirees will be women. Rural places will be more affected by aging than urban areas, not only because rural areas are demographically older but because rural older residents receive lower Social Security and pension benefits than urban elders. Concurrently, some high amenity rural counties, primarily in the South and West, receive internal in-migration from well-to-do retirees who are often active volunteers and social entrepreneurs and thus help revitalize some rural communities.

To illustrate the dramatic impact of aging on the rural population, Kenneth Johnson (University of New Hampshire) discussed natural decrease. Decrease occurs when a county or region has more deaths than births, resulting in population loss, that is, unless the loss is replaced by in-migration. Historically, young adults have moved away from rural communities to get jobs, for education, or to join the military. With fewer young adults remaining or returning  and having children, population aging results in natural decrease, a trend that is increasing rapidly in nonmetropolitan counties.

Douglas Gurak (Cornell University) described the ways that immigration is increasing the ethnic diversity of the rural elderly population, especially with immigration from Latin America and Asia. With the exception of those of Mexican origin, elderly immigrants in rural places have relatively high incomes, with some immigrant groups having higher incomes than native-born Americans.

Joachim Singelmann (University of Texas-San Antonio) and Marlene Lee (Population Reference Bureau) shared the results of their research on the health of older African Americans. Using the American Community Survey, they show that older rural African Americans, especially women, have higher disability rates than their white counterparts in rural or urban places.


The briefing speakers recommended to policymakers that policy should balance the needs of aging and younger populations; harness the human capital and expertise of older adults; take account of the diversity among rural older people and places; and preserve and fund data sets, including the American Community Survey, which can be used to study aging among residents of small geographic areas. Slides presented at the briefing can be found here

COSSA’s Howard Silver, Glasgow, and E. Helen Berry (Utah State University) organized the briefing in conjunction with the release of the book, Rural Aging in 21st Century America (Springer 2013), edited by Glasgow and Berry. The event’s co-sponsors were the Consortium of Social Science Associations, ASA, Association of Population Centers, Population Association of America, Rural Sociological Society, Farm Foundation, Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station, Cornell Population Center, Cornell’s Department of Development Sociology, University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, and Utah Agricultural Experiment Station.


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