Reshaping the Urban-Rural Divide in the 21st Century: Shifts in the Geographies of Urban-Based Livelihoods

In the 20th century, the urban-rural divide drove urbanization in much of the world by encouraging migration from rural to urban areas. There were always marked regional variations in the outcomes of this process as net migration rates to cities waxed and waned in response to shifts in the costs and benefits of urban-based livelihoods. Newer factors affecting incomes and the costs of urban living have also arisen and influenced the nature of the divide. These include shifts in the global geography of different types of urban-based employment and significant rises in the costs of urban housing, which are reshaping livelihoods and migration patterns in many large cities across the world. In the Global North, the population of some large cities would dwindle without international immigration. This paper draws on examples from across the world to discuss these global urban livelihood shifts and their implications for understanding the urban-rural divide. It will show that the internationalization of the divide has rendered national policies insufficient for reducing inequalities across it.

Editor's note:

This essay appears in Vol. 74, No. 1, "Global Urbanization: Nations, Cities, and Communities in Transformation" (Fall/Winter 2021).

Deborah Potts
April 05, 2022


For almost all of human history, most people lived in rural areas and the control of rural production and labor generally lay at the heart of societies and political regimes. The shift of productive forces to urban locations during the Industrial Revolution, along with the commoditization of land, created the broad economic conditions that allowed or forced more rural people to migrate to cities to find work. The 20th century saw mass migrations into urban settlements as these changes spread and consolidated in societies globally. For many regions, this transformation finished well before the first decade of the 21st century, during which human populations became primarily urban. The relative scale of migration flows across the urban-rural divide then dwindled gradually as the pool of rural people became smaller compared to urban populations. The relative size of the rural and urban shares of national output is always shifting, usually in favor of the urban. Over time, many rural settlements are redesignated as urban when they meet certain population thresholds or become less agricultural in their employment characteristics.[1] This factor, however, varies across geographic contexts. Many societies—particularly those in South Asia and much of Sub-Saharan Africa—are still mainly rural.

This paper examines the ways in which global urban livelihood shifts are reshaping the nature of linkages between rural and urban areas and associated inequalities. It argues that these urban livelihood changes require a broadening of our understanding of the geographic scope of the urban-rural divide. In the following sections, the emphasis is on the urban end of the divide; the interactions across it, particularly patterns of migration; and how these reflect the changing types of livelihoods that have emerged in cities in different parts of the world. The paper will show how issues of resilience and the shifting costs and benefits of urban livelihoods have implications for understanding the urban-rural divide today. It will argue that the wider geographic scope of the divide and the ever-increasing susceptibility of rural or urban livelihoods to be transformed by economic changes beyond national borders often means that national policies are insufficient to reduce inequalities between rural and urban areas or bolster livelihoods in either sector, because the real solutions lie in the international sphere.

Conceptualizing the “Rural” and the “Urban”: The Evolution of the Urban-Rural Divide

The urban-rural divide has been conceptualized in various ways, with differing emphases in social, economic, or political characteristics and organization. These do not necessarily manifest as inequalities; they may reflect different values, environments, and rhythms of life in ways that lend no particular advantage to rural or urban people. However, the long history of the urban, stretching back over several thousand years, has usually been associated with control and exploitation of the rural. In fact, this arguably underpinned the development of urban centers and their populations. The invention of agriculture not only created surplus and tradeable production, but also, by freeing some humans from their existential ties to finding food, allowed for the division of labor and specialization, the emergence of political and religious elites, and further differentiation between humans based on the new social relations of production. These productive and political forces were concentrated in new settlement types: towns and cities, i.e., the “urban.” Until then, the “rural” did not exist, as it is understood largely in terms of its contradistinction to the “urban.” The two are relational concepts.

There are numerous ways of theorizing the urban-rural divide. Since the Industrial Revolution, the divide and its associated academic study has often been bound to the concept of agrarian transition. This field of inquiry is mainly concerned with the incorporation of capitalist relations into peasant societies and the associated changes in the social relations of production and thus class structures. In North America and much of Europe, which are highly urbanized and where agriculture accounts for tiny proportions of the workforce and gross domestic product, this framing of issues around the divide is no longer significant, though it still has purchase in more rural countries. A further complexity is that any discussion of rural and urban dynamics, including the concept of the urban-rural divide, is very much influenced by what is deemed “rural” or “urban.” One way of thinking about the “rural” and the “urban” is to treat them as a spectrum of settlement types and livelihoods, from “very rural” at one end to “very urban” at the other, with a host of intermediary types of physical locations and associated livelihoods, all of which are intricately linked by urban-rural movements and flows of goods and services.[2] For instance, the 2012–2017 international project RurbanAfrica emphasized how links between the conventionally rural and urban, especially migration, could transform some rural settlements and thus complicate the binary.[3] Towards the urban end of the spectrum, there is now discussion of new types of “in-between” places—“particular urban environments, marginal and residual, produced by the urban sprawl,” as architects Giovanna Piccinno and Elisa Lega define them—in which the nature of production and market forces are not the defining aspects.[4] Posing even more of a challenge to the idea of a urban-rural divide is the concept of planetary urbanism, which argues that there is now no “rural,” but only a “non-urban realm” that can be understood in terms of “connections to the heartlands of urban concentration,” per urban theorists Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid.[5]

While these approaches can yield important insights into the changing dynamics of contemporary settlements, space precludes the possibility of incorporating them into a single article on the urban-rural divide. As such, this paper will approach the urban-rural divide using comparative national statistics on these categories published in national censuses or the United Nations’ World Urbanization Prospects. These can be problematic, and sometimes misleading, due to long gaps between censuses and very different national approaches to defining urban settlements. However, most practitioners outside of academic social science circles—including governments, ministries, statistical offices, development agencies (e.g., the World Bank, UN, regional development banks), economists, development practitioners, the private sector, and policymakers generally—still work with the general concepts of “rural” and “urban.” For these reasons, and for the sake of clarity and brevity, this article takes the conventional usage of the terms.

Migration is a core component of the urban-rural divide. Urban areas are centers of industrial production, administration and government, trade, commerce, and services, and therefore tend to have more wage employment than rural areas, generating higher incomes and myriad opportunities for self-employment and small-scale enterprises, both formal and informal. The lower value added per worker in the natural resource-based production that has typified rural areas—such as farming, forestry, fishing—has generally meant lower incomes for workers.[6] This typically results in migration flows towards urban areas that are selective of the youthful, better educated, and potentially most productive people. This can then reduce the economic vibrancy of rural areas, creating a feedback loop, encouraging further out-migration. However, such widening of the urban-rural divide and increasing of the scale and permanence of urban-rural migration can be mitigated by remittances from urban workers. These can fund investments in rural production and infrastructure. Supportive government policies towards agriculture and rural services can also help. Geography plays a part: Remote areas with limited transport and access to markets are much poorer than those near major settlements and transport corridors.[7] Per capita income data within countries nearly always show that rural areas are poorer than urban. Yet such averages can hide more than they elucidate. They do not account for the significant differences between different types of rural areas and between urban settlements. Additionally, gaps between the incomes of the richest and poorest can be as large within cities as between rural and urban areas. Finally, when disposable incomes are compared after necessary cash expenditures, it becomes apparent that urban poverty is frequently underestimated.[8]

Negotiating the Urban-Rural Divide

While the world has evidently become more urban, the process has been less straightforward than the standard theory of unilinear modernization postulated. This theory assumed that migration to towns was, or swiftly became, permanent; it argued that if circular migration occurred, whereby people moved back and forth between rural and urban areas, it would inexorably and steadily be replaced by permanent migration as urban economies developed.[9] The outcomes of the urban-rural divide were predictable everywhere. For instance, it was argued that “[c]urrent African and South Asian patterns of temporary migration will almost surely give way to permanent patterns.”[10]

Such unilinear theorizing was based on European and American experiences in the 19th and much of the 20th century, when cities in these regions dominated global urban production and were associated with higher value-added employment. Rather obviously, however, the situation was different in subaltern urban systems elsewhere, from Mali to Myanmar to Malaysia. For example, restrictions on urban-rural migration and on the permanent residence of families in urban areas were common during the colonial era and were often backed up by housing policies, giving preference to “single” laborers. The impacts of “divided families”—of farmer-housewives and worker-peasants, and of livelihoods that incorporated both rural and urban strands, straddling the urban-rural divide over lifetimes—could be found across the Global South.[11] Complex patterns of circular migration developed that affected (usually lowering) rates of urbanization.[12] When institutionalized restrictions ended, these patterns adapted and more family migration occurred, increasing the speed of urbanization. This also led to greater female migration and less imbalanced sex ratios in most cities. Nonetheless, many economic forces and housing issues continued to discourage family unification in towns, which served to maintain elements of “single” worker migration and urban-rural linkages, often reinforced by social and political factors.[13]

Such complex and fluid patterns across the urban-rural divide are still common in the two most populous countries in the world, India and China. As these countries account for about 36 percent of the global population (compared to 14 percent for North America and Europe combined), the continued existence of these two-way interactions has great significance for our understanding of the contemporary nature of the urban-rural divide and what it means for people and their livelihoods.[14] In urban India, overcrowded rented row housing (single-room lanes) is a com­mon housing type for “single” migrants, and millions in the urban workforce retain connections to rural villages that go beyond kinship links.[15] The continued significance of links across the urban-rural divide in India became international news in 2020 during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. As lockdowns devastated fragile urban livelihoods—people’s survival was often threatened by even a few days of not earning some cash—millions left cities and returned to villages, where there was at least a chance of being fed and housed.[16] 

In China, these patterns are still semi-institutionalized through the hukou system, whereby people are registered in specific localities. There is freedom of movement between rural and urban areas, but migrants’ rights to many types of state support and services—including subsidized housing, health, and education for themselves or their families—are confined to their place of hukou registration in a rural area or some other town that is often small and inadequately served. A 2017 report on Beijing’s migrants stated: “In Chinese cities, migrants’ work is welcome. Their children are not.”[17] In the same year, the so-called “floating” population (those living outside of their hukou locality) was estimated at 245 million people, amounting to 17.6 percent of the total population.[18] The status of the floating population makes Chinese urban statistics somewhat ambiguous. It is recorded to be one of the fastest urbanizing societies the world has ever seen, rising from 19.4 percent to 61.4 percent between 1980 and 2020. Only South Korea exceeded this astonishing speed when its levels rose from 27.7 percent in 1960 to 79.6 percent by 2000.[19]

Changes in the hukou system have been occurring, but these largely favor migrants with tertiary-level education. According to Yang Song, since “the constrained economic structure of the host society can often hold back migrants in destination cities from generating sufficient resources for sustaining households, many come to rely on trans-local networks in the creation of economic activity, and they can be a critically important element of their strategies for survival.”[20] Most members of the floating population remain disadvantaged. They are vulnerable to displacement by regeneration projects that often demolish the low-income neighborhoods close to employment opportunities, and unlike those with local registrations, they have no right to be re-housed. For example, 400,000 people were evicted in Beijing before the 2008 Olympics and 2.5 million people were evicted in Shanghai between 1993 and 2003, a period of many regeneration projects.[21] In such cities, criteria for obtaining a local hukou have become so tight that few migrants are now eligible. In Guangzhou, for example, only 5,000 achieved this registration in 2015. In individual recent years, the populations of both Beijing and Shanghai have fallen as a result: The number of migrants in Shanghai fell by 150,000 in 2015[22] and Beijing’s total population fell 165,000 in 2018, having peaked in 2016.[23]

Although urban areas generally provide many more economic opportunities than rural areas, thus encouraging in-migration, the examples above drawn from India and China demonstrate how vulnerable urban workers can be in the absence of reasonably comprehensive systems of social protection. The provision of state support for incomes, housing, and health for urban residents during periods of unemployment, illness, and old age has long been a key structural socioeconomic differentiator between the societies of the Global North and Global South.[24] State protections fundamentally impact processes of urbanization and shape interactions across the urban-rural divide, as well as the broader global geographies of human welfare and the experience of poverty. Cities can swiftly become unforgiving environments for those not earning enough to cover their daily basic needs. If structural forces narrow the income gradient between urban and rural areas, this can translate into a reconfiguration of the urban-rural divide over decades.    

For example, in many Sub-Saharan African countries during the last two decades of the 20th century and the early years of this century, the speed of urbanization slowed as structural adjustment policies like trade liberalization devastated city economies; real urban incomes plummeted to fractions of their previous levels, reducing the economic advantages of urban-rural migration.[25] A handful of countries—including Zambia, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and the Central African Republic—experienced periods of ruralization as net migration flows shifted towards rural areas. With little realistic state support for the urban poor, the catastrophic downturns in urban incomes meant that many people were forced to re-engage with rural livelihoods, often reluctantly. In Zambia, this lasted for around 20 years; the share of the urban population fell from 40 percent to 36 percent between 1980 and 2000. In several other countries—such as Mozambique, Malawi, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, Togo, and Benin—individual cities or groups of towns experienced net out-migration and the total urban population grew only a little faster than the rural population. The gradient of economic advantage across the urban-rural divide in these situations had flattened or reversed. [26] The commodity boom, which began in 2003 and lasted for around a decade, eventually reinvigorated economic growth in many countries. Rates of urbanization tended to increase again.[27] 

Thailand provides another example of complicated and fluid socioeconomic interactions across the urban-rural divide. Despite being a Southeast Asian “tiger economy” that swiftly moved from low- to lower middle-income status in the 1970s and 1980s and to upper middle-income status by 2010 (as designated by the World Bank), it has also retained patterns of circular migration between rural and urban areas over generations of migrants. A 2012 survey in Northeast Thai villages found that most households had a migrant member living elsewhere. However, 81 percent of those who were labor (as opposed to marriage) migrants were expected to return.[28] The migration strategies had helped to lift villagers’ incomes, largely ending poverty by the 1990s. The authors of the survey posed the question of why urban-rural migration had not become permanent and argued that, to improve their incomes and status further, second generation migrants would in part “need to remain absent and commit fully with the knowledge economy of the city.”[29]  

The argument that urban-rural migrants lacked “commitment to the city” also used to be made in African studies, although generally some decades ago. However, particularly after the mass informalization of Sub-Saharan African urban economies, which occurred during the era of structural adjustment and the accompanying falls in typical urban disposable incomes, rural linkages were increasingly recognized to provide a safety net for those who might otherwise become destitute in urban settlements. Thus, as I have argued elsewhere, African migrants’ “decisions in these regards are often less about their ‘commitment’ to the city, than the city’s commitment to them.”[30] Social protection for urban workers also remains thin across much of Asia and almost nonexistent within the informal sector. It appears that this played a part in maintaining trans-local livelihoods in Thailand.[31] The researchers argued in their analysis of the 2012 study that:

In embracing and sustaining inter-locking livelihoods across spaces and sectors, villagers were not being capricious. Maintaining a presence in the village and on the land provides a degree of livelihood security; people well recalled the effects of the Thai financial crisis of 1997–98 when the economy contracted by more than 10% and many people were thrown out of work with little notice and no severance pay....


Migrants who preferred the security of the village to the perceived perils of permanently leaving home were not... being whimsical; as Thailand has progressed, non-farm work has arguably become more precarious rather than less so... the size of the informal sector in Thailand declined from 77% of total employment in 1980 to 58% in 2000. Since 2000, however, it has risen again, to 63% in 2012.... This has been put down to the growing informalisation of the formal sector, and with it growing precarity....[32]

These examples demonstrate the need to challenge any presumption that inequalities between rural and urban areas will always be typified by urban wealth and rural deprivation. When studied from the perspective of ordinary people’s livelihoods, rather than the value of production or the asset base, it becomes clear that the relative strengths and weaknesses of the rural and the urban are more complicated and fluid than such a depiction suggests. Part of the complexity derives from the insecurity of proletarianized workforces who are divorced from the means of production, including rural land. For the first few generations of urban workers in Europe and North America during the Industrial Revolution, the sheer precarity of their lives in the absence of meaningful social safety nets for the old, children, the sick, or the disabled was reflected in the so-called “urban penalty.”[33] The combination of eventual investment in urban infrastructure and social safety nets—including pensions and support for the unemployed and sick, and regulations to improve working conditions and pay—then reduced and usually reversed this situation, so that urban people tended to have better health and life expectancy than those living in rural areas.

As already noted, urban safety nets are far less adequate, if they exist at all, in most of the Global South. Shocks to an individual household’s economic circumstances or downward swings in the entire urban economy can swiftly tip people towards destitution. In place of institutional support, in many parts of rural Asia and Africa and some parts of Latin America, non-capitalist landholding arrangements can provide a safety net of sorts for those who have retained land rights or can access land through kinship or ethnic links. This has been one of the economic drivers of continued circular migration across the urban-rural divide in such societies.[34] It is important to note that land reforms have the potential to disrupt these informal safety nets. Policies that ensure basic living standards in both rural and urban areas for households undergoing short-term economic shocks or long-term structural poverty issues can transform circular migration patterns and help landless agricultural laborers, who are probably the most vulnerable working members of all societies and may need such help the most. However, governments can also choose to institutionalize these informal, rural safety nets and the ways in which they subsidize and shape the nature of urban production and the urban workforce. This was true of white minority-ruled countries in southern Africa in the past and still occurs in China, as discussed in the next section.

Globalizing the Urban-Rural Divide?

The discussion so far has focused on the urban-rural divide in individual countries. However, state-bound ontologies about the divide are now insufficient. The debate needs to also account for the global rural and the global urban, opening the way for fresh insights into the characteristics of both sectors and the interactions between them, including global migration flows. Three structural changes have been of key significance in reshaping the geographic scope of the impacts of the divide. The first structural change was the neoliberal phase of capitalism that began in the 1980s, which advocated for both decreasing the size of the state and rolling back employment regulations in the name of labor market flexibility and efficiency. This made labor more vulnerable in both rural and urban sectors. It allowed the spread of precarious types of work, often previously associated with the urban Global South, throughout the cities of the Global North. Neoliberalism also introduced the second set of changes: economic globalization, deregulation of capital flows, and trade liberalization, which—by allowing Asian countries to capitalize more fully on their comparative advantage in much cheaper and reasonably-educated labor—drew many types of higher value-added production and services away from the cities of the Global North. The third change was economic reform in China from the 1980s onward that made the country a global capitalist economic force, both because of its natural comparative advantages in many urban-based sectors but also because of its use of state-operated enterprises to compete even more effectively. This new source of economic competition further reduced the availability of secure employment for millions of workers in cities in the Global North.

When inequalities between rural and urban areas occur across countries or even continents, designing policy to address the impact on people’s livelihoods becomes more difficult. And indeed, the urban-rural divide has internationalized; China’s successful capturing of value-added employment, which underpinned many secure and reasonably paid livelihoods in the cities of the Global North, was enhanced by the inequalities inherent in the urban-rural divide within China itself, based on the hukou system. As I have argued elsewhere:

That system allows the costs of reproducing labour and sustaining non-workers to be displaced to families and governments in rural areas and smaller towns. This helped China establish its phenomenal hold on globalised industrial job creation at the end of the twentieth and into the early twenty-first century – it was part of its ‘comparative advantage’ in the global trading system. The system also exerted other ‘advantages’ for private and ‘state’ capitalist enterprises: exceptional control and surveillance of the labour force, who are on-site even when not working, and, concomitantly, discourage­ment of organisation to improve worker conditions.[35]

Rural-urban migrants can also now be drawn from societies far beyond the borders of the city where they are working, but are often then severely disadvantaged by their lack of citizenship. Singapore, for example, depends to a significant extent on the cheap labor of about 300,000 migrant workers from various other Asian countries, including Malaysia, India, China, and Bangladesh. Unlike most of Singapore’s citizens, the vast majority of whom live in some of the best state-subsidized housing in the world, its migrant workers are usually housed in overcrowded dormitories and other types of inadequate and cramped accommodation.[36] Another often-cited example of wealthy cities’ exploitative links to poor rural areas in other countries is the dependence of the highly-urbanized Gulf states on foreign construction workers from Asian countries, who are again housed in poor conditions with very limited rights.[37]

The role of such international flows of labor in supporting segmented global city labor markets in New York, London, and many other cities across the world is well established.[38] The concept of segmentation helps to distinguish highly-skilled migrants who are well paid and relatively secure from a vast array of other immigrants who work in low-paid and insecure jobs that are essential to the functioning of the city, often in the service sector. Some are undocumented migrants who are the easiest to exploit due to their fear of deportation.[39] Although migrants moving within the European Union do not face that issue, there is still movement between countries across the urban-rural divide because several eastern and southern European countries have significant rural populations. They can also find themselves working in poor conditions and living in tied, dormitory housing in, for example, electronics factories in the Czech Republic or German abattoirs. As in Singapore, serious outbreaks of COVID-19 drew media attention to the exploitative conditions in the abattoirs.[40] Beyond internal migration, there is a vast spiderweb of immigrant flows into Europe from across the world, both documented and undocumented. Many will have rural origins, but whether they begin in rural or urban areas, these flows reflect deep inequalities between economic opportunities across international spaces.

Precarious Work, Precarious Cities

As discussed, migration processes across the urban-rural divide in Thailand are now influenced by the rise of precarity within the urban formal sector. This rise is sometimes described as an informalization of the formal sector, which assumes that formal sector work can be defined by the characteristics of the job—such as reasonable hours and pay, as well as benefits like pensions—and that informal workers do not have these advantages.[41] Of longer standing is the idea that the informal sector is defined more by the characteristics of the enterprise, a particular aspect being that it is not registered with the state and eludes government requirements like taxes and health and safety regulations, so that it is not “legal,” in a sense.[42] Pay and conditions are usually poor, but crucially, the second definition allows for distinctions between employers, employees, and the self-employed, since the social relations of production between these evidently differ and informal employers can sometimes be very wealthy. It is believed that the first is best thought of as “precarity”—poor-quality jobs with few, if any, “rights,” but which are nonetheless legal, registered, and recorded by the state—and the second as “informality.” The key point is that both were once considered characteristic of the urban Global South but are now on the rise in the urban Global North. Precarity has swept through cities in North America and Europe as once “decent” jobs are contracted out and access to former legally-binding benefits like health benefits and holiday pay is reduced or removed.[43] Precarious work is found in jobs like taxi driving, the “caring” sector, deliveries, and warehouse operations, as well as sub-sectors of teaching, researching, and nursing. Outright informality, where workers are hidden or must hide from the state, may include work that overlaps with these sectors, plus millions of “off-the-books” workers in everything from urban construction sites to restaurants. In the urban Global South, informal work is often the main employment sector, and while trends in the numbers of poor-quality jobs fluctuates, the relative numbers of workers involved are not necessarily decreasing.

The urban Global North has now experienced four decades of declining job security and employment conditions, generally along with the loss of well-paid, permanent jobs in manufacturing industries. These had been the bedrocks of the economy in many cities; they created multiplier effects not only through linkages to other enterprises with more jobs, but also through the host of service sector jobs that fed off the decent pay and demand from industrial workers. The global geography of this type of work, and many other jobs in sectors like information technology and call centers, has now shifted toward cities in the Global South—to China in particular, but also to cities across South and Southeast Asia.[44] These changes have undermined some of the formerly-assumed benefits of urban life. For those in lower-income brackets in the urban Global North—which now include not just the very poorest deciles, but often those earning less than the median wage in their city of residence—the result has been that their disposable incomes and their economic security in the city have been reduced.

Another significant element in the fall of disposable incomes has been the huge rise, relative to income, in the cost of decent and safe urban housing over the past few decades.[45] An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report on housing costs found that average household expenditure on all housing costs increased between 2000 and 2013 in 34 of its 39 countries.[46] The 2017 Bloomberg Global City Housing Affordability Index, which covers 105 cities across the world, reported that even if 50 percent of residents’ average take-home pay went to housing, only 12 of these cities would be “affordable.”[47] It should be noted that these results were highly skewed toward skilled workers in the formal sector and formal housing. Thus the data indicate how housing costs are highly problematic for these workers as well as for poorer groups, where this might be more expected. The ten most unaffordable cities were Kiev, Hanoi, Mumbai, Buenos Aires, Bogota, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, Beijing, Shanghai, and Sao Paulo. London was 29th and New York, 45th. This list demonstrates the global reach of the housing issue. The problem is also writ large for cities on the global tourist circuit, such as Venice, Barcelona, and Rome.

In London in 2016, a worker making the median wage would have had to spend 75 percent of their income (after tax) to pay the average rent (then £1,329) for a one-bed flat. That cost was 20 percent more than the entire income of a worker on minimum wage. Even the cost of renting one room in a shared house in London (£607) was 55 percent of the minimum wage.[48] In the United States, the National Low Income Housing Coalition calculated that, in 2017:

there is not a single county or metropolitan area in which a [full-time] minimum-wage worker can afford a modest two-bedroom home, which the federal government defines as paying less than 30 percent of a household’s income for rent and utilities. And in only 12 counties [mainly rural ones in the West] in the country is a modest one-bedroom home affordable.[49] 

These trends mean that urban disposable incomes have dwindled. The issue often now affects those in permanent work earning the median wage, or even above. For example, in 2018, a household in San Francisco earning as much as $117,400 could be considered low-income and would be eligible for state assistance because housing costs were so high.[50] In the United Kingdom, London has the highest levels of poverty once housing costs are factored into disposable incomes. In 2020, 28 percent of the city’s population was classified as living in poverty, compared to 22 percent in England as a whole. London’s children were the worst affected, with 37 percent living in poverty.[51] As some of those designated poor were living in housing types subsidized by the state in various ways, the situation would be far worse without state intervention.

For non-wealthy households with children, the situation in many of these large cities is becoming increasingly impossible, unless they get access to the ever-dwindling supply of housing subsidies or abandon decent housing standards. Alternatives are to leave the city despite its job market attractions, delay having children, or have no children at all. The evidence suggests that both are happening in many cities in Europe and North America. One analyst of British fertility pinpoints that, “economics are a factor. Housing costs keep increasing while wages do not. There’s less spare cash to put aside for all the things a baby needs, not to mention childcare, which costs an astronomical amount.”[52] In New York City, the crude birth rate in 2018 was 13.6 per 1,000 people, 12.3 percent lower than it had been in 2009.[53] Insecure work plays a key role, as low pay, irregular hours, and limited rights all exert downward pressure on birth rates. In the United States, the already-low birth rate has been falling since the financial crash. Natural decrease (a state of births exceeding deaths) occurred in 24 percent of urban counties, even though they had relatively more women in childbearing years than rural counties.[54]

Out-migration from large, expensive cities is also occurring and began long before the pandemic. The causes are different from the earlier patterns of urban depopulation in industrial rustbelt cities in the United States and across Europe. In the United States, the new trends are “reshaping America.”[55] In July 2017, metro areas with a population of 100.2 million or more experienced net out-migration of 398,000 of their domestic population. The population of New York City has declined since 2017 and Chicago’s population began falling just before the pandemic started.[56] In Europe, the population of Paris has been falling since 2012, while London has been losing population in terms of domestic (internal) migration for around two decades. Without international immigrants, many “global” European and American cities would have started shrinking long ago (and many without such status have).[57] The foreign-born share of the population from 2015–19 in New York City was estimated to be 36.8 percent; in San Francisco, 34.3 percent; in Chicago, 20.6 percent; and in Miami, one of the fastest growing cities in America, 58.3 percent.[58] In London, if short-term immigrants who stay under 12 months are excluded, a tipping point was reached in 2016 when the balance between long-term international immigrants (excluding those staying less than 12 months) and internal out-migrants turned negative. Domestic out-migration reached 100,000 and the city lost 23,000 residents overall.[59] The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these patterns, with widespread reports of households seeking new, more spacious housing outside of large, densely settled cities in the world’s wealthier countries.[60] Whether those shifts are permanent remains to be seen.


Urban processes today can no longer be framed only within national contexts. Urban-rural divides still play a significant part in feeding urban labor markets, but these are now expressed in cross-border migrations as well as mobility within states. Understanding such urban processes requires globalized theorizing that accounts not only for the usual factors like income gaps between areas of origin and destination, but also, for international migrants, the intervening obstacles of borders and visas, and for undocumented migrants, the multiple burdens and risks of labor traffickers.  

In societies that have long been largely urban, the competing attractions or declining fortunes of different cities—the urban-urban divides—are already understood to have replaced the urban-rural divide as the key to understanding urban processes. These can be reflected both in national policies to stimulate and help depressed cities and in city policies to compete for new investment and employment. This trend is now internationalized as urban-urban migrants, like their rural-urban counterparts, move across borders. ­

Internationalized migrant flows have been fundamental to economic and population growth for decades in large cities across the world—to urbanization itself—from Singapore to the Gulf to North America and western and northern Europe. They are, however, often politicized in negative and dangerous ways. Too often, political reactions to immigrants are mixed up with understandable concerns about global economic trends that have undermined the livelihoods of particular sets of urban households or entire cities in destination societies, despite international migrants not contributing to those trends. National identity politics also play a major part. The imposition of more restrictions on cross-border labor in Europe and North America can never address the cross-border economic inequalities that motivate the migration, although they serve to immiserate many. Global urban-rural (or urban-urban) divides need global responses.

We also need to understand how demographic changes relate to domestic urban populations. Most wealthy countries now have low fertility rates, but this is in part because they are so heavily urbanized. Urbanization has always been correlated with ­­­lower fertility. Yet European and North American countries have not become much more “urban” in the past 20 years, if at all, and fertility is still falling. In addition, domestic out-migration from some of their largest cities is strengthening. Key reasons are rising costs-of-living—particularly housing—and changes in urban labor markets that make urban livelihoods less secure. These have very negative implications for the people who live in such cities and for urban society. Cities are becoming places where people work, but cannot live.

[1] David Satterthwaite, “Urban Myths and the Mis-Use of Data That Underpin Them” (working paper, United Nations University, World Institute for Development Economics Research, “Development in an urban world” project: March 2010),

[2] Tony Champion and Graeme Hugo, eds., New Forms of Urbanization: Beyond the Urban-Rural Dichotomy (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).

[3] Deborah Potts, “Labels and Definitions: Reflections on the Rural and Urban in Sub-Saharan Africa” (keynote speech, RurbanAfrican, University of Copenhagen, Denmark: 25–28 January, 2016).

[4] Giovanna Piccinno and Elisa Lega, “Spatial Design for New Typologies of Places: In-between Urban Spaces,” in Space and Place: Diversity in Reality, Imagination, and Representation, eds. Brooke L. Rogers and Anna Sugiyama, (Leiden: Brill, 2019): 41–49.

[5] Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, “The ‘Urban Age’ in Question,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38, no. 3 (2014), 750.

[6] Josef Gugler, “The Urban-Rural Interface and Migration,” in Cities, Poverty and Development: Urbanization in the Third World, eds. Alan Gilbert and Josef Gugler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[7] David Simon, Transport and Development in the Third World (London: Routledge, 1996).

[8] Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite, eds., Urban Poverty in the Global South: Scale and Nature (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013). The International Institute of Environment and Development produced a series of case studies on the underestimation of real urban poverty by government-set poverty datum lines in various countries; see, for example, Sarah Sabry, “Poverty Lines in Greater Cairo: Underestimating and Misrepresenting Poverty” (Human Settlements Working Paper Series, Poverty Reduction in Urban Areas, London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 2009); and Miniva Chibuye, “Interrogating Urban Poverty Lines: The Case of Zambia” (Human Settlements Working Paper Series, Poverty Reduction in Urban Areas, London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 2011).

[9] For a discussion of the debates over this sort of unilinear theorizing with reference to urbanization and migration in Sub-Saharan Africa, see Deborah Potts, Circular Migration in Zimbabwe and Contemporary Sub-Saharan Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 2010).

[10] Joan M. Nelson, “Sojourners Versus New Urbanites: Causes and Consequences of Temporary Versus Permanent Cityward Migration in Developing Countries,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 24, no. 4 (1976), 732.

[11] For a review of the field on divided families, see Cecilia Tacoli, “Rural-Urban, Interactions: A Guide to the Literature,” Environment and Urbanization 10, no. 1 (1998): 147–166. For discussion specifically relating to the role of such links in addressing inequalities and poverty, see David Satterthwaite and Cecilia Tacoli, “Seeking an Understanding of Poverty That Recognizes Rural-Urban Differences and Rural-Urban Linkages,” in Urban Livelihoods: A People-Centred Approach to Reducing Poverty, eds. Carole Rakodi and Tony Lloyd-Jones (London: Earthscan, 2002): 52–70; and Jo Beall, Nazneen Kanji, and Cecilia Tacoli, “African urban livelihoods: straddling the rural-urban divide,” in Urban poverty in Africa: from understanding to alleviation, eds. Sue Jones and Nici Nelson (London: ITDG, 1999). On farmer-housewives and worker-peasants, see Deborah Potts, “Worker-Peasants and Farmer-Housewives in Africa: The Debate About ‘Committed’ Farmers, Access to Land and Agricultural Production,” Journal of Southern African Studies 26, no. 4 (2000), 807-32. On how this phenomenon straddled the urban-rural divide, see Colin Murray, Families Divided: The Impact of Migrant Labour in Lesotho (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[12] Potts, Circular Migration.

[13] Ibid.

[14] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, “World Population Prospects 2019,” (accessed April 6, 2021).

[15] In the Indian city of Gurgaon, for example, these overcrowded rental units are “overwhelmingly dominated by young men” sharing rooms, as conditions and cost considerations “generally deterred male workers from bringing their families with them to the city.” See Thomas Cowan, “Subaltern Counter-Urbanism: Dynamics of Urban and Industrial Change in Gurgaon, India’s Millennium City” (PhD thesis, King’s College London: 2017): 127–8.

[16] Roli Srivastava and Anuradha Nagaraj, “No Way Back: Indian Workers Shun City Jobs after Lockdown Ordeal,” Reuters, May 28, 2020,

[17] Alyssa Edes and Steve Inskeep, “In Chinese cities, migrants’ work is welcome. Their children are not,” NPR, November 16, 2017,

[18] Yidong Tu, Ying Zhang, Yongkang Yang, and Shengfeng Lu, “Treat Floating People Fairly: How Compensation Equity and Multilevel Social Exclusion Influence Prosocial Behavior among China’s Floating Population,” Journal of Business Ethics (2020),

[19] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, “World Urbanization Prospects 2018,” (accessed April 6, 2021).

[20] Yang Song, “Translocality and Capital Negotiation among Urban Second-Generation labor Migrants in Hangzhou, China” (PhD thesis, King’s College London: 2020), 135.

[21] Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, “In the Footsteps of India and China?” Evictions Monitor 1, no. 3 (2005): 12–14.

[22] Mandy Zuo, “Beijing spells out strict residency rules for migrants to the capital,” South China Morning Post, August 12, 2016,

[23] Wendell Cox, “Beijing And Shanghai Limit Population Growth,”, March 28, 2019,

[24] Caroline Moser, “Urban Social Policy and Poverty Reduction,” Environment and Urbanization 7, no. 1 (1995): 159–72.

[25] Potts, Circular Migration, 18–26.

[26] Deborah Potts, “Whatever Happened to Africa’s Rapid Urbanisation?” (Counterpoints series, Africa Research Institute, London: 2012),

[27] These rises are not always reflected in shifts in employment structures, however, so there can be a mismatch with rising “urban” populations found alongside high shares of the economically active population still classified as working in agriculture. See Potts, “Urban data and definitions in sub-Saharan Africa: Mismatches between the pace of urbanisation and employment and livelihood change” Urban Studies 55, no. 5 (July 24, 2017),

[28] Jonathan Rigg, Buapun Promphaking, and Ann Le Mare, “Personalizing the Middle-Income Trap: An Inter-Generational Migrant View from Rural Thailand,” World Development 59 (2014): 184–98.

[29] Ibid., 195.

[30] Potts, Circular Migration, 257.

[31] Rigg, Promphaking, and Le Mare, “Personalizing the Middle-Income Trap,” 195.

[32] Ibid.

[33] The concept of the urban penalty refers to how, during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, morbidity and mortality rates for urban residents were often far higher than the norms in the rural societies from which they or their ancestors were drawn. See Javier A. Birchenall, “Economic Development and the Escape from High Mortality,” World Development 35, no. 4 (2007): 543–68.

[34] Potts, Circular Migration.

[35] Deborah Potts, Broken Cities: Inside the Global Housing Crisis (London: Zed Books, 2020).

[36] Mimi Kirk, “The peculiar inequality of Singapore’s famed public hous­ing,” Bloomberg CityLab, June 9, 2015,

[37] Federico Caprotti, “Eco-Urbanism and the Eco-City, or Denying the Right to the City?” Antipode 46, no. 5 (2014): 1285-1303.

[38] Saskia Sassen, “New Employment Regimes in Cities,” in Cities, Enterprises and Society on the Eve of the 21st Century, ed. Frank Moulaert and Allen J. Scott (London: Pinter, 1997): 129–50.

[39] Hannah Cross, Migration Beyond Capitalism, (Cambridge: Polity Books, 2020).

[40] Erika Solomon, Valerie Hopkins, and Alexander Vladkov, “Inside Germany’s Abattoirs: The Human Cost of Cheap Meat,” Financial Times, January 8, 2021,; Hannah Schling, “(Re)production: everyday life in the workers’ dormitory,” Society and Space, July 11, 2017,

[41] For an exposition of this position with reference to South Africa, see Richard Devey, Caroline Skinner, and Imraan Valodia, “Definitions, Data and the Informal Economy in South Africa: A Critical Analysis,” in The Development Decade? Economic and Social Change in South Africa, 1994-2004, ed. Vishnu Padayachee (Pretoria: HSRC Press, 2006).

[42] Manuel Castells and Alejandro Portes, “World Underneath: The Origins, Dynamics and Effects of the Informal Economy,” in The Informal Economy, eds. Alejandro Portes, Manuel Castells, and Lauren A. Berton, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1989): 11–37.

[43] Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

[44] Michael Spence, “The Impact of Globalization on Income and Employment: The Downside of Integrating Markets,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 4 (2011): 28–41.

[45] Deborah Potts, Broken Cities.

[46] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “OECD Affordable Housing Database,” (accessed April 6, 2021).

[47] Bloomberg and Numbeo, “2017 Bloomberg Global City Housing Cost Index,” For an extensive analysis of the index, see Potts, Broken Cities.

[48] Potts, Broken Cities, 35–38.

[49] Alastair Gee, “Earn Minimum Wage in the US? You Can Afford to Live in Exactly 12 Counties,” Guardian, June 8, 2017,

[50] Ryan Nunn and Jay Shambaugh, “San Francisco: where a six-figure salary is ‘low income,’” BBC News, July 10, 2018,

[51] Trust for London, “London’s Poverty Profile: 2020” (report, Trust for London, WPI Economics: 2020), 

[52] Cosslett, R. “Priced out of parenthood: no wonder the birthrate is plummeting,” Guardian, July 20, 2018,

[53] New York State Department of Health, “Historically Low Infant Mortality Rate and Fewer Births in New York City in 2018, Annual Vital Statistics Data Shows,” January 4, 2021,

[54] Brady E. Hamilton et al., “Births: Provisional Data for 2017” (Report No. 004, Vital Statistics Rapid Release, National Center for Health Statistics, Division of Vital Statistics, Hyattsville: May 2018), See also Derek Thompson, “The Future of the City Is Childless: America’s Urban Rebirth Is Missing Something Key—Actual Births,” Atlantic, July 18, 2019,

[55] Kenneth Johnson, “Domestic Migration and Fewer Births Reshaping America” (National Fact Sheet No. 38, Carsey School of Public Policy, University of New Hampshire, Durham: 2018),

[56] U.S. Census Bureau, QuickFacts, “Chicago city, Illinois; Austin city, Texas; Seattle city, Washington; Miami city, Florida,”,austincitytexas,seattlecitywashington,miamicityflorida/PST045219 (accessed April 6, 2021). 

[57] See, for example, Menelaos Gkartzios, “Leaving Athens: Narratives of Counterurbanisation in Times of Crisis,” Journal of Rural Studies 32 (2013): 158–67; Christine MacDonald, “Detroit’s Population Drain Persists, Census Data Shows,” The Detroit News, May 21, 2020,; Manuel Wolff and Thorsten Wiechmann, “Urban Growth and Decline: Europe’s Shrinking Cities in a Comparative Perspective 1990–2010,” European Urban and Regional Studies 25, no. 2 (2017): 122–39.

[58] U.S. Census Bureau.

[59] Potts, Broken Cities.  

[60] Estimates for London of the additional impacts of COVID-19 and Brexit, which came into force at the end of January 2020, by the government-funded Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence are that up to 700,000 immigrants—8 percent of the city’s population—left the city between the third quarter of 2019 and the same period in 2020. See Michael O’Connor and Jonathan Portes, “Estimating the UK population during the pandemic” (research project, Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence, regional and labour market statistics programme: January 14, 2021), See also H. Blair Kincer, “Pandemic Exacerbates Urban Exodus in New York City” (blog post, Novogradac, Affordable Housing Resource Center: November 24, 2020),