By: Janet Harrah
This article examines how Kentucky’s metropolitan counties compare to micropolitan and rural areas of the Commonwealth. The analysis includes comparisons for several key demographic categories including population growth, racial characteristics, educational attainment levels and poverty rates of the residents of each area.
United Way’s Bold Goals recognize that our communities cannot be expected to perform highly in the areas of income and education without performing well in both categories. Decades of research show the interconnections very clearly. Education is the basis for individual success; it is essential to getting and keeping a job with a livable wage and health benefits. An income adequate to pay for today's necessities – and save for the future – provides individuals and families some sense of financial stability. Without question, education and income are not only the building blocks of a good life, they are also intertwined.
The growth trends across Kentucky demonstrate these patterns as well. The rural areas, in general are growing slowly, have higher rates of poverty and lower rates of educational attainment. The metropolitan areas, in general are growing faster, have lower rates of poverty and higher rates of educational attainment. The micropolitan areas of the state have trends falling somewhere in between those of the rural and metropolitan counties.
As part of the decennial Census, the U.S. Census Bureau publishes population counts for all metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas. A metro area contains a core urban area of 50,000 or more population, and a micro area contains an urban core of at least 10,000 (but less than 50,000) population. Each metro or micro area consists of one or more counties and includes the counties containing the core urban area, as well as any adjacent counties that have a high degree of social and economic integration (as measured by commuting to work) with the urban core.
As shown in Table 1, CEAD categorized each county in Kentucky as a metropolitan, micropolitan or rural county. Counties were designated as rural if they were not part of a metropolitan or micropolitan area as defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In 2010, of Kentucky’s 120 counties, 35 are metropolitan counties, 26 are micropolitan counties and the remaining 59 are rural counties. Although nearly half of Kentucky’s counties are rural, the rural population in 2010 accounted for just 23.3 percent of the Commonwealth’s total population.
Table 1: Kentucky counties by type
Chart 1: Kentucky Counties by Type
Metropolitan Counties Fuel Population Growth
Data from the 2010 Census show that the U.S. population grew by 27.3 million people over the last decade. Most of the population growth occurred in large metropolitan areas. The top 100 metropolitan areas gained 19.8 million people and accounted for two-thirds of the total population in 2010. Smaller urban areas referred to as “micropolitan” areas grew at a slower rate than metropolitan areas over the last decade. Population growth averaged 11 percent for the 374 metropolitan areas and only 5.1 percent for the 581 micropolitan areas.
Similar trends were evident in Kentucky.
Between 2000 and 2010, Kentucky’s population increased by 7.4 percent compared to an 11.1 percent increase for metropolitan counties, a 5.5 percent increase for micropolitan counties and the rural area’s 0.4 percent increase.
Over the past 100 years, the population of Kentucky has become increasingly concentrated in a few large counties. The 5-county concentration ratio, which consists of the population share (expressed as a percentage) of the five most populous counties in Kentucky, has increased from 21 percent in 1910 to 32.9 percent in 2010. Kentucky’s five most populous counties in 2010 include Jefferson, Fayette, Kenton, Boone and Warren. In 2010, nearly 8 in 10 residents live in one of just 50 counties.
Table 2: Kentucky Population Concentration Ratios Past 100 Years
Based on population projections produced by the University of Louisville, by 2050 65 percent of Kentucky’s population will reside in metropolitan counties, up from 58 percent in 2010. The share of the population living in micropolitan areas is projected to decline by 1 percent or approximately 124,000 residents. The rural counties are projected to decline by 6 percent losing nearly 70,000 residents.
Kentucky Population Projections 2050
Most Minorities Live in Urban Areas
Most of Kentucky’s minority population lives in large urban counties. Jefferson County accounts for 17 percent of Kentucky’s total population but accounts for nearly 37 percent of its minority population including 45.4 percent of Kentucky’s Black or African American population; 24.1 percent of its Hispanic or Latino population; and 33.7 percent of its Asian population. Fully half of Kentucky’s minority population lives in either Jefferson or Fayette. Eighty percent of Kentucky’s minority population lives in just 19 of the Commonwealth’s 120 counties.
The minority population accounts for less than 5 percent of total population in rural counties, 8.3 percent of population in micropolitan counties and 18 percent in metropolitan counties. The largest minority groups in Kentucky are Black or African Americans (327,700 persons) and Hispanic or Latinos (117,300 persons). Among non-Hispanics, 56,500 persons self-identified themselves as having two or more races. Christian County is the most racially diverse county with a minority population of nearly 32 percent followed by Jefferson (28.4 percent) and Fulton counties (26.5 percent).
Table 4: Kentucky Population by Race and Hispanic Origin, 2010
When discussing poverty status it is important to distinguish between poverty numbers and poverty rates. The highest poverty rates are in the rural counties of Kentucky. The ten counties with the highest percentage of the population living below poverty are all rural counties led by Wolfe County with a poverty rate of 42.2 percent. The ten counties with the lowest poverty rates are all metropolitan and micropolitan counties.With the exception of Pike County, the counties with the largest number of persons living in poverty are all metropolitan and micropolitan counties. Of the nearly 736,000 residents living in poverty, 15 percent or 110,700 live in Jefferson County alone. In short, the highest poverty rates tend to be in the rural counties while the largest numbers of poor tend to live in metropolitan counties.
Table 5: Kentucky Poverty Status, 2010
Chart 2: Kentucky Counties by Percent Living Below the Poverty Level
Educational Attainment Trends
Educational attainment rates vary substantially across Kentucky. In the metropolitan counties of the state more than 1 in 4 adults has a bachelor’s degree or higher, more than double the rural rate of 1 in ten adults. Statewide 19 percent of the adult population lacks a high school diploma compared to 28.5 percent in the rural counties.
As was the case with the poverty data, it is important to distinguish between rates and numbers for educational attainment. The highest percentage lacking a high school diploma tends to be in rural counties. The largest number lacking a high school diploma tends to be in metropolitan counties.
Table 6: Educational Attainment of the Population 25 Years and Over, 2010
Table 7: Counties Ranked by Percent of Adult Population with a High School Diploma, 2010
Table 8: Counties Ranked by Percent of Adult Population with a Bachelor’s Degree or Higher, 2010
Chart 3: Kentucky Counties by Percent of Adult Population 25 Year and Over with a High School Diploma or Higher
 Minority population was defined to include anyone who was not a non-Hispanic white person.