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For many people, the term “rural” is synonymous with low incomes and limited economic opportunities. However, a recent study at the University of Illinois found that much of rural America is actually prosperous . What accounts for their flourishing? Family ties and civic-minded churches.

The study analyzed unemployment rates, poverty rates, high school drop-out rates, and housing conditions to identify prospering communities. According to the study, one in five rural counties in the United States is prosperous. They do better than the nation on all these measures . . . .

Isserman decided to focus on outcomes instead of growth. Do communities keep their kids in school? Are their unemployment and poverty rates low? Are housing conditions good and the folks healthy?

“When we started our research, people wondered whether we would find any prosperous rural communities at all using those criteria. But more than 300 of the nation’s rural counties did better than the nation.”

[ . . . ]

Prosperous rural counties have more off-farm jobs, more educated populations, and less income inequality than other rural counties. Geographical factors like climate, topography, distances to cities and airports, and interstate highways are unimportant in distinguishing prosperous counties from others.

“Instead, the results supported what many rural people believe to be true—civically engaged religious groups and a common ancestry can really matter,” Isserman said.

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