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Lack of Civic Support for Rural Youth May Lead to Lower Civic Engagement

CIRCLE survey data suggests young people in rural communities need more than access to information and opportunities: they need support to vote and take civic action.  

Authors: Ruby Belle Booth, Mahnoor Hussain
Contributors: Alberto Medina, Katie Hilton, Kelly Siegel-Stechler, Peter de Guzman

Less Educational Impact

Rural youth are less likely to feel that civic education has shaped their perception and understanding of our democratic system.

Less Civic Support for Rural Youth

Rural and urban youth are getting similar levels of civic information, but rural youth lack the support to take action on it. 

Potential in Associations

Rural youth belong to groups at similar rates to urban youth, but less than 1 in 5 have opportunities to use their voice in groups.

The urban/rural divide is one of several inequities that affect youth civic engagement and often result in unequal outcomes, such as voting rates, that keep rural youth underrepresented in civic life. These inequities are often about access to information and opportunities, especially in communities that are more likely to be civic deserts. However, even when there is relatively equal civic access, the barriers faced by rural youth can run deeper, particularly as it relates to the quality and ultimate perception of such opportunities.

A new analysis, based on CIRCLE’s Pre-2024 Election Youth Survey of 18-to-34-year-olds, underscores these dynamics. We generally find similar levels of access and exposure to civic learning and engagement between rural and urban youth based on the limited measures we asked about, but significant gaps in support and civic culture. This new data supports the findings from the CIRCLE’s 2023 learning community of rural leaders and practitioners, who shared that there are crises and barriers impacting rural youth’s ability to participate long before they encounter any existing opportunities for learning and engagement.

Our research brief (linked below) based on insights from this community highlights those findings - many of which reflect dynamics that are difficult to capture in surveys - and offer a deeper dive into some of these barriers and opportunities for overcoming them. 

CIRCLE Growing Voters

CIRCLE’s Growing Voters framework outlines three elements that must be in place for effective engagement of young people at the local level: access and exposure to opportunities for civic learning and engagement, support to take advantage of those opportunities, and a civic culture in our communities that embeds these opportunities with meaning. Traditional youth voter engagement, often with a myopic focus on the transactional work of voter registration and GOTV, covers access and exposure well but can fail to provide the support or culture that help to bring more young voters into the fold.

Rural Youth Consistently Vote at Lower Rates

Previous CIRCLE research has found that, in the states for which we have 2020 data, youth voter turnout (ages 18-29) was 44% in rural counties compared to 52% in non-rural counties: a 15% (not percentage point) difference. In the 2022 midterms, there was a smaller difference between rural (20%) and urban (23%) youth voter turnout in absolute terms, but a similar difference of 13% lower turnout in rural counties. (Looking at % changes in turnout (as opposed to percentage-point differences) allows us to compare the relative differences in turnout in presidential and midterm cycles, which have very different turnout rates).

Data from CIRCLE’s recent pre-2024 election poll suggests that this difference in participation may persist in this cycle, especially when we consider rurality and race. Whereas 64% of urban white youth (ages 18-34) in our survey indicated they were “extremely likely” to vote in the 2024 election, rural white youth (55%) and non-white rural (48%) and urban (51%) youth reported lower likelihood to vote. While some of these differences disappear when controlling for variables like education, the fact remains that barriers which may arise in rural settings can intersect with young people’s identities, compounding inequities. It may be, for example, that for youth of color, the barriers and inequality related to their race/ethnicity have a bigger impact than their geographical community, but both may play a role in historically lower voting rates among nonwhite youth

Access to Civic Learning Does Not Equal Impact 

In our survey, we found relatively even rates of access to high school civic education between rural and urban youth. That is a departure from previous findings, although it’s possible that differences remain which were not captured by this survey due to the nature of the sample, data thresholds, or how we defined rural communities. 

In our 2024 pre-election survey, around 7 in 10 rural and urban young people (ages 18-34) reported taking a course called something like Civics, American Government, or Government in high school. There was a slight difference between rural and urban youth, but it was within the margin of error. By contrast, when we asked teens the same question in 2020, 74% of urban teens had taken such a course, compared to 55% of suburban and 50% of rural youth. 

While access to a civics class was similar regardless of geography, crucially, rural youth were less likely to report that their classroom experiences in high school “had an impact on their understanding of our democratic process and its importance.” While 48% of urban youth agreed with this sentiment, only 41% of rural youth did. This highlights existing discrepancies in the quality, impact, and consequent perception of civic learning experiences that go beyond mere access and whether a course is technically offered. Additionally, urban youth (41%) were more likely to have opportunities in their school where they felt like their voice and opinions mattered than rural youth (30%). 

A recent CIRCLE analysis shows that young people with opportunities to exercise student voice in school were more likely to plan to vote in the 2024 election and had higher levels of civic engagement in other forms.  

In this area, our recent findings do confirm a trend from the CIRCLE teen survey in 2020, which showed rural youth had less exposure to pedagogical best practices in civic education. For instance, while relatively similar rates of teens had opportunities to learn about political parties in their civics class (85% urban youth, 81% suburban youth, and 73% rural youth), far more urban youth (64%) had the opportunity to think about where their own political beliefs fell on a political spectrum than their suburban (44%) or rural peers (30%). 

These high-quality civics education practices not only teach about democratic institutions, but help situate young people within them and empower them to take action. That is more likely to help young people feel like their classroom experiences were impactful in developing their civic identity. 

Rural Youth Lack Support to Enjoy Civic Culture

Our survey suggests that rural and urban youth also have relatively even levels of access to information about elections and voting. About two-thirds (66%) of rural youth reported hearing some or a lot of information about state and local politics, compared to 63% of urban youth (within the margin of error). Slightly fewer rural (61%) and urban (62%) youth reported hearing some or a lot of information about when and where they can register and vote in elections.

In general, rural and urban youth receive election information from similar sources like friends and family, news, and social media. One exception: urban youth are more likely to get information about voting and elections from individuals like athletes, celebrities, and influencers. 

While rural and urban youth had similar access to and sources of election information, that does not translate into equal ability to turn that information into action. Our previous research has shown the importance of community organizations and local institutions in helping youth make sense of what they’re learning and connecting with others in order to act and affect change. On that score, there is a marked difference by rurality.

Only about a quarter of rural youth (27%) agreed that there are institutions and individuals in their community who can help them to understand and act on civic information, compared to 36% of urban youth. It is notable that so few young people overall feel they have this kind of civic support in their communities, and it is especially worrying that it is much lower for rural youth. Young people who responded that they did have access to such supportive institutions and individuals were more likely to report a high likelihood to vote in the 2024 election, illustrating how that support is essential for translating civic information into action.

Untapped Potential in Associational Life to Engage Rural Youth

Participating in local groups, clubs, and associations can offer rich opportunities to learn and practice civic skills if they incorporate democratic practices and empower young people with opportunities for decision-making. While overtly political and civic organizations can play this role, organizations with other aims may attract young people who are not yet explicitly interested in political engagement.

In our survey, we asked young people if they were active participants (defined as attending once a month or more) in a church or religious congregation, political or social organization, union, or other local group such as a sports team, gaming club, band, or cultural group. Overall, 41% of rural youth say they belong to at least one type of association, which is higher than the 38% of urban youth that report such membership.  Rural white youth are among the most engaged, largely as a result of their participation in religious institutions, and about a third (30%) of rural youth of color report associational belonging, also mostly in religious congregations. That highlights the potential of churches as a hub for rural civic participation among youth if they embrace practices that support young people’s leadership development. 

Group membership is associated with a variety of positive civic outcomes. Young people who regularly participate in all of these group types are: more likely to say they’re likely to vote, have higher civic engagement scores across a range of non-voting civic activities, and report higher levels of community belonging regardless of their race, gender, age group, or education level. 

These benefits go even farther when organizations embrace practices that facilitate youth leadership and voice in decision-making and other democratic values. In particular, when young people report learning more about how to have a voice in their community in the group or getting to participate in making decisions about what the group will do, they are even more likely to report higher community belonging and civic engagement scores. However, as with other deeper aspects of civic support and culture, less than 1 in 5 rural youth report experiencing opportunities to exercise their voice in associational life. 

There is extraordinary untapped potential for these opportunities and experiences to drive youth civic engagement in rural communities. Rates of both active membership and opportunities for civic meaning-making and action-taking in such associations is far too limited. Increasing access for young people to participate in groups and enhancing those opportunities for youth voice and leadership could contribute to greater community belonging. Such belonging is positively associated with voting and other measures of civic participation, but less than half of rural youth feel like they belong in their community.

Addressing the profound civic barriers and inequities experienced by rural youth requires thinking beyond mere access to opportunities. There are often deeper needs in rural communities that require additional investment and support in order to grow voters and improve participation. Additionally, there are likely vast differences in experiences among rural youth that we are limited in our ability to disaggregate from our own data. Considering the quality and impact of civic education, the potential of associational life, and the lack of support for turning information into action is key to closing gaps and eliminating inequality between rural and urban youth and among rural youth.


Methodology: How We Define Rural

The turnout of young people ages 18-29 in rural and non-rural counties was calculated using voter file data from Catalist as well as data on the citizen voting age population from the American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. Voter file data was not available for the following states, which we excluded from our analysis: AK, DC, HI, IL, MD, MS, NH, ND, TX, UT, WI, WY. To classify counties as rural or non-rural, the 2013 Rural-Urban Continuum Codes produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service were used. For our analysis, the 2013 RUCC codes 5, 7, 8 and 9 were classified as rural.

Rural respondents were identified in the CIRCLE Pre-2024 Election Youth Survey as residing in a rural area as defined by the Census Bureau’s 2020 urban-rural classification.