Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide: Why Youth Intervention Matters Everywhere

The outcome of the 2016 presidential election made it abundantly clear that the rural-urban divide is as strong as ever. Urban and rural Americans have had different experiences that shape their vision of the role of government. With looming budget cuts at both the federal and state level, youth workers need to lead the charge in overcoming the “us” vs “them” narrative. We need to advocate for more support for youth, regardless of where they live.

If we are ever going to close the opportunity gap and ensure all youth have the chance to succeed, we first have to understand the context in which rural and urban area programs operate.

While facing similar challenges, urban and rural areas each face their own set of challenges. For various reasons, the unique challenges of rural areas often go unrecognized.

Rural America traditionally has had higher rates of poverty for decades.  According to a Social Science Research Council study,

  • 24% of children living in rural areas live in poverty, compared to 20% of children in urban areas.
  • More than 20% of youth living in rural areas are “disconnected,” meaning they are neither employed nor attending school. For urban and suburban areas, it is 14.2% and 12.3% respectively.

There are other unique needs. Health and human service agencies in rural areas also serve a larger geographic area than their urban counterparts.  Large geographic distances between a youth’s home and a program is an access barrier.

For urban areas, a unique challenge is the high concentration of poverty. This often means a larger number of youth-serving agencies competing for limited funding while so many youth continue to have needs unmet.

Whether urban or rural, a commonality is increased diversity.

Both urban and rural areas are becoming more diverse.  In rural areas, the population is aging with younger age groups becoming more diverse. About one-fifth of the rural population is people of color.

In both urban and rural areas, the relationship between white communities and communities of color is, as Mara Casey Tieken stated, “separate and unequal.” Historical disenfranchisement and structural racism plague communities of color in both rural and urban areas.

As youth workers, we can create positive change for youth by advocating for non-ideological solutions to bridge the rural-urban divide.

Growth & Justice, a policy research and advocacy group in Minnesota, will be presenting at YIPA’s upcoming training in Marshall, MN on Strategies for Building Assets, Resiliency and Reconnection. Join us to learn about this project that seeks constructive, non-partisan and non-ideological solutions that help improve the socio-economic condition of Greater Minnesota and bridges the gaps between rural and Twin Cities interests.

Whether in rural or urban communities, all organizations would serve more youth if they could. The need for youth programming is not going away and all communities would benefit from adequate funding.


Maggie Dudley is the Membership Director for YIPA

The Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA) is a member organization comprised of organizations and individuals that serve youth in some capacity. Our biggest strength is the diversity of our membership. Our approach and program outcomes may differ, but we are united in the desire to create positive change in the lives of young people. The success of one of our members is a success for all, regardless of where that organization is located.