According to a study recently released by the University of Arkansas Division of Arkansas, Van Buren County’s population has gotten older and slightly better paid in recent years. Its infrastructure shows an expected need for more and better broadband access.

The study is constructed to determine the differences between urban and rural communities in Arkansas and how these environments have changed over time. Included in the study was the effect of COVID-19, although data points reflected more long-term trends.

Van Buren County is part of the “Highlands” area, per the study, the mostly central and west to Fort Smith portion of the state, with an urban area in its center surrounding Little Rock and extending into neighboring Faulkner County, and to the west into the greater Fayetteville metro as far south as Sebastian County. The very south and eastern portions of the state are listed as Coastal and Delta, respectively, with three additional urban counties there.

The study was authored by Professor Wayne Miller and Program Associate Ellie Wheeler, both of University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Cooperation Extension Service.

Population

Like most of rural Arkansas, the population of Van Buren County continues to decline, dropping 4 percent from 2010. This same decline is shared with neighboring Cleburne County, while Stone County to the north rose 1 percent and Faulkner County, to the south, seeing an 11 percent increase.

Northwest-most Benton County rose 25 percent or the same time period. In the state, population increased 3 percent, compared to a 6 percent national population increase.

“The population decline in the Rural region of the state was primarily due to out-migration of people, whereas, both in-migration and natural increase resulted in population growth in the Urban region,” the study states.

During this same period seniors, those 65 and over, grew as a percent of population throughout the state, showing 27 percent of the population of Van Buren County for 2019, the last year available. The median age in the county is 49.2, also based on 2019 numbers.

From 2010 to 2019 the Hispanic population grew from 6.4 percent to 7.8 percent of the state population, showing only a slight, but present, increase in the Highlands region.

Employment

The state had been on-track with growing employment numbers since the 2008 recession. This was, however, interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on employment. At the same time, while employment growth in Arkansas took place, it was primarily in urban environments, with rural employment staying more-or-less flat post 2008 recession where a drop took place.

Despite this, Van Buren County saw a 1 percent increase in employment from 2007 to 2018. This is much better than its surrounding Highland counties, with the worst-case being Searcy County which saw a 10 percent decline in the same time period. Urban Faulkner County saw an 8 percent increase in the same time period.

Van Buren County continues a positive trend on a 2010 to 2018 time frame, showing a 5 percent employment increase.

The southern, rural, Coastal Plains saw the greatest decline in employment.

Overall, employment moved away from manufacturing sector jobs to service sector. The Highlands region saw a significant downturn in construction.

From the study: “The Construction and Farming & Forestry sectors exhibited job losses in both the Rural and Urban regions during this time period. Construction losses were -17 percent in rural counties and -6 percent in urban counties. Among the Rural regions, the losses were particularly high in the Highlands region (-20 percent). Losses in the Farming & Forestry sector were milder, decreasing 2 percent in rural counties and 1 percent in urban counties.”

Earnings

Arkansans earn about 24 percent less than the national average, in 2018 being $47,272 compared to the national $62,321, with the wage growth of 1.9 percent from 2007 to 2018 compared to the national growth rate of 4.2 percent. As expected, earnings in urban environments were on the whole higher than rural environment.

In Van Buren County, the average earnings per job is $32,741 from 2018, a number that grows in adjoining counties to the south, and declines to the north. For example, Conway County shows $41,943 while Stone County shows $28,799.

For this same period, Van Buren County shows a 1 percent increase in household wages from 2010 to 2018. Interestingly, central Arkansas urban counties show an overall decline in household income during this same period.

The COVID-19 pandemic increased national unemployment from 4.5 percent to 7.7 percent from March to September in 2020. In Arkansas, for the same period unemployment moved from 4.9 percent to 7.7 percent with an interesting statistical note.

From the study: “However, the Arkansas labor force also declined 3.0 percent during this five-month period. If those dropping out of the labor force were added to the officially unemployed, the adjusted Arkansas unemployment rate would be 9.8 percent or two percentage points above the official August rate.”

For August 2020, Van Buren County showed an 11.1 percent unemployment rate.

The Van Buren County poverty rate, measured in 2018, is 19 percent, lower than the north-adjoining Searcy and Stone counties at 21 percent and 22 percent respectively, and above the south-adjoining Conway and Faulkner counties respective 18 percent and 17 percent.

Infrastructure

Van Buren County showed only 14 percent of its population has access to 25/3 Mbps or faster internet broadband service, one of the lower numbers in the state. (Calhoun County, well to the south, has a 7 percent access rate.)

(Note that Petit Jean Electric Co-Op recently announced plans to provide county-wide broadband access in coming years.)

The county bridges show 3 percent as being graded “Poor” per Federal Highway Administration statistics for 2019. This places it slightly worse than neighboring Cleburne and Stone counties, at 0 percent, and Conway and Faulkner at 1 percent. Adjoining Searcy to the north shares the 3 percent ranking.

Drinking water shows a bright spot, with no drinking water violations listed for Van Buren County per the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System. Roughly half the counties in the state did not meet this standard. Figures for 2018 were used in the study.

[Next week: Health, education and tax rates across the state.]

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