CIRS Blog about Rural California

What is the status of rural California today?

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When most Americans think of California, they typically conjure up visions of beaches, Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge, Silicon Valley, or an urban/suburban lifestyle. But for many decades, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, California also has had more rural residents than any of the eleven western-most states of the contiguous forty-eight. Census 2000 found California’s rural population totaled 1,876,753 persons, nearly twice as large as second-ranked Washington state’s non-urban population (Census 2010 has not yet reported rural population findings).  

Rural economies of California have been historically dominated by natural resource production (some would say “exploitation”): farming, ranching, fishing, logging, mining and hunting. During the past several decades, only farming has experienced real growth in economic terms, largely due to a major expansion of the annual output of high value commodities, such as fruits and nuts, vegetables, ornamentals and dairy products.

California’s agricultural success story is illustrated by the fact that nine of the ten U.S. counties with the largest value of farm production are located within the state. But the fishing and logging industries are in serious decline and may never recover, while mining and hunting long ago depleted their natural resource bases.

Traditionally, rural residency was thought to be associated with better health: clean air and water, active outdoor lifestyles and occupations, and a low incidence of crime and/or personal health risk behaviors, such as smoking. Urban life, especially within the inner city, was regarded as associated with poverty, unhealthful housing conditions and crime.

The latest measures of health outcomes in California tend to belie the notion that rural people have better health outcomes. The ten counties with the reportedly worst health outcomes in the state are those tending to have the greatest percentage of rural residents. All ten have vast areas of fisheries, timber, ranch and farmland that serve as the basis of many residents’ livelihoods. From the bottom of the list in ascending order are Del Norte, Siskiyou, Lake, Trinity, Yuba, Kern, Inyo, Tulare, Madera and Modoccounties (University of Wisconsin et al, 2010). Ranking first among all of the state’s 56 counties in reported health outcomes is Marin County.

The Great Recession has had a disproportionately larger adverse impact on rural areas of the state than was the case in the 50-mile swath of California that faces the Pacific Ocean and extends from Marin County toward the Mexican border. Whether it is measured by the unemployment rate, the proportion of mortgaged homes in foreclosure or having had a notice of default filing, or the decline in housing valuation,the historically rural areas of the state have generally fared worse.

It is difficult to develop accurate measures of the status of rural California because nearly every socio-economic characteristic – health status, educational attainment, family income – is reported according to city, county, or other standard political sub-division, not separately by rural geographic status. With this limitation in mind, California’s 20th Congressional District (C.D.), in the heart of the agricultural region on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley, ranked as the very worst among all of the nation’s 436 Congressional Districts according to the “American Human Development Index” (Burd-Sharps et al, 2008). The measures used to rank C.D.’s were: life expectancy at birth, educational attainment, school enrollment (as percent of eligible children) and median earnings. 

Significantly, a plurality of all private-sector male workers in the 20th C.D.population is employed in agriculture.I  Of considerable importance, the 20th C.D. is a major success story of agricultural production, ranking 14th in the nation out of 436 C.D.s in value of farm output. Total farm cash receipts from the sale of agricultural commodities in the 20th C.D. was reported by the 2007 Census of Agriculture to be $4.4 billion, and it ranked 2nd in the nation in vegetable sales.

Until recently, “rural” was defined by the Census Bureau to be incorporated cities or census designated places outside of metropolitan areas that had less than 2,500 residents as well as non-metropolitan areas with low population density outside of incorporated and census designated places. But this changed in 2003 with the development of Rural-Urban Continuum Codes (RUCC) to allow fine-grained distinctions among counties with urban populations of differing size. Just two of these codes specifically include the term “rural” in their descriptive definitions, but in both cases were defined in reference to a county’s proximity to metro areas.


Using the 2003 RUCCs, just four California counties were classified as rural, as a “Nonmetro county completely rural or less than 2,500 urban population, adjacent to metro area” (Alpine, Mariposa, Sierra, Trinity). Paradoxically, more than 98% of the state’s rural residents lived in counties described as “metro” or as “non-metro” with substantial urban populations. Less than 2% of California’s rural population resides in the four counties specifically identified as rural.

California’s geographically huge counties – several encompass areas larger than some individual states of the Eastern U.S. – present a curious demographic dilemma: counties with very sizeable urban populations may also have substantial numbers of rural residents spread over hundreds of square miles of sparsely populated farmland, desert, timberland or mountains. For example, the city of San Bernardino (San BernardinoCounty) has 209,924 residents (Census 2010), and tens of thousands more within its metropolitan area. But the county also had 96,453 rural residents (Census 2000), and comprises some 20,000 square miles, almost twenty times larger than the average for all counties of the contiguous forty-eight states (1,032 sq. mi.).

The major demographic change in California during the past decade has been the remarkable increase in the populations of counties that have historically had small,somewhat isolated, rural communities spread over large distances. The Inland Empire,the San Joaquin Valley, and several Sierra Foothill counties have experienced population growth rates substantially exceeding that of the state as a whole, and by much greater factors than the state’s major metropolitan areas.

While California’s population increased by about 10% between 2000 and 2010,Riverside County’s grew by 42%, Kern’s by 27%, San Joaquin’s by 22% and Tulare’sby 20%. In contrast, during the same decade, Los Angeles County’s population increasedby a mere 3% and Orange County’s by 6%. There can be little doubt that the rural population of the state has diminished by a substantial amount during the past ten years, although Census 2010 data is not yet available.


  1. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census 2000, 20th Congressional District, California, Table P51. Sex by Industry by Class of Workers for the Employed Civilian Population 16 Years and Over. Excluding government workers, there were 104,864 men employed, of which 37,717 were employed in agriculture,forestry, fishing and hunting. Cf., Census 2000 Summary File 3, accessed 8/2/08.


Scholars have identified this shift of population to areas that had previously been considered to be rural in character as resulting from either spillover out of traditional urban boundaries (expansion of suburbia) or from counter-urbanization, i.e., net migration out of urban areas to less densely populated regions. People who leave major urban centers include those changing jobs, or seeking less expensive housing costs, or desiring communities with lower crime rates, or retirees seeking amenities and a life-style more to their liking. Indeed, whole new communities, termed “new towns”, have been developed to meet the perceived needs or expectations of specific socio-economic strata,including the rich who desire an amenity-driven community.

A second demographic shift, less noticed, is the emergence of Hispanic majorities in major portions of the San Joaquin Valley. Tulare County is now majority Hispanic, largely the result of having a mostly young, family-oriented population. Migration from Mexico and Central America, attracted to the prospect of finding jobs in an increasingly labor-intensive agriculture, was the main historic factor contributing to this new ethnic profile.

There is an important but little discussed divide between academic demographers and community residents when discussing “rural” in the context of California. Many communities classified as “urban” by Census criteria are viewed as undeniably “rural” by the people who actually live there. Huron, Mendota, Mecca, Orange Cove, Parlier and Arbuckle, among many others, have populations that exceed the 2,500 cutoff to be classified as rural. But nearly every resident of these communities will say they live in a rural community.

Much of rural California is now more populous, more Hispanic, but less healthy, poorer and less well educated than urban areas. At the same time, formerly rural portions of the state, especially in the Sierra Foothill region, have become affluent destination communities for many former urban residents and retirees. But the conclusion is inescapable: the divide between California’s rich and poor is becoming ever wider.



Burd-Sharps S Lewis K Martins EB, The Measure of America: American Human Development Report 2008-2009, Columbia University Press, New York, 2008, 245 p.

University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, County Health Rankings: Mobilizing Action Toward Community Health.California. 2010, cf. accessed 3/1/10.

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Don Villarejo became active in civic affairs in 1955, successively participating in the student, civil rights and peace movements. In 1960, he was a founding editor of New University Thought, one of the first publications of the New Left, serving as Chair of the Board of Editors until 1965. In 1967-68, he participated in the preparation of protests at the 1968 National Democratic Party Convention in Chicago.

After several years of involvement in the Los Angeles peace movement, including founding the Indochina Work Group (dedicated to ending U.S. military intervention in Vietnam), he joined the eight-member National Standing Committee of the Indochina Peace Campaign in 1972, representing the Pacific Region, a position he held until the conclusion of the U.S. involvement in 1975.

He served as volunteer with the farmworkers movement in 1976 and, after the conclusion of this work, founded the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS) in 1977, serving as Executive Director until his retirement from that position in 1999. CIRS is a private, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to helping create a rural California that is socially just, economically viable and ecologically balanced.

His professional career has been multi-disciplinary, starting with a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Chicago in 1967. He joined the faculty of the Physics Department at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1968, serving until 1975, and then taught at the University of California, Davis, for several years until switching careers subsequent to the founding of CIRS. Dr. Villarejo's experience as a research physicist, particularly analytical and quantitative skills, proved to be invaluable preparation for his subsequent career as a researcher interested in agricultural economies and rural societies.

Dr. Villarejo has served as a consultant for numerous public and private agencies, including the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, California State Assembly (Office of Research), California Department of Industrial Relations, U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Reclamation, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, California Rural Legal Assistance, International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Locals 601 and 890), and Migrant Legal Action Program, among others.

He has received a number of awards in recognition of his service, most recently the 2000 National Service Award of the Office of Migrant Health (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services) for "Exemplary commitment, dedication and service to the nation's migrant farm workers."

Dr. Villarejo's publication, Suffering in Silence (November 2000), was cited by The California Endowment as the primary motivating factor in its recently announced $50 million commitment in new grants to provide health services for hired farm workers in California.


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