Debate suggesting that rural areas are being ignored or abandoned may influence the decisions of voters on Saturday.
However, in this analysis of incomes and unemployment, we show that income levels in rural areas (except in more remote areas) are not particularly low, and that the gap between rural and urban incomes narrowed considerably during the current economic recovery.
There has also been a dramatic reduction in unemployment levels, down 62% since 2010 in Co Cork, for example.
Our following statistical comparison of disposable incomes (and of unemployment) in rural and urban areas, suggests that while there are areas where incomes are low, it is not strictly an issue of town and country.
Income levels in parts of all cities are low, as they are in many towns.
And there is compelling evidence that the gap in incomes between rural and urban areas narrowed during the current economic recovery.
According to the report from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) of last December, called “Urban and rural life in Ireland”, the highest average incomes are in cities, at €28,300 (see the table).
The data comes from a major survey in 2017, reclassified to show incomes by degree of urbanisation or rurality.
The lowest incomes are in independent towns, and in remote rural areas, at €20,650, or 23% less than in cities, and 17% less than the national average.
Incomes in rural areas with a high urban influence are just above the national average.
The estimated proportion of the population in “consistent poverty” was 6.7%.
The lowest poverty levels are in two of the rural categories, while the highest level, at 9.4%, is to be found in “independent towns”.
These would include substantial towns such as Dundalk, Kilkenny and Tralee, and smaller towns with populations of around 2,000 people, such as Castleisland or Dunmanway.
Income data is available for other years, but only for a simple urban-rural categorisation of cities and towns with more than 1,500 people as urban.
This data on incomes from 2012 to 2018, in the table, shows there has been a dramatic improvement in rural incomes over the six years to 2018 (up by 34% since 2012, or by 13% in the two-year period from 2016).
This led to a considerable narrowing of the differential between rural and urban incomes.
In the three-year period from 2012 to 2014, rural incomes averaged 85.7% of urban incomes.
In the three-year period from 2016 to 2018, this figure was 91%.
This trend would indicate that the recovery has benefited rural areas (though not necessarily all of them).
Data for poverty trends over the same period show a similar but not so dramatic pattern.
In the period from 2012 to 2014, the estimated proportion of the population in urban areas in “consistent poverty “ was 7.8%, compared with 9.3% in rural areas.
In the period 2016 to 2018, these percentages had fallen to 7.2% and 6%.
An improvement all around, but a greater improvement in rural areas.
These statistics on the impact of the recovery on incomes, prompt questions regarding what it was like before the economy collapsed.
Do the improvement in rural incomes, and reduced levels of poverty, represent a return to the past, or a new phenomenon?
Data from the annual Survey of Income and Living Conditions goes back many years.
It shows incomes in rural areas in 2006 and 2007 were 84.4% and 81.4% of those in urban areas.
They rose to 91% from 2016 to 2018.
The proportion of people in “persistent poverty “ in 2007 was only 5.3% in urban areas, and 4.3% in rural areas.
Urban areas had caught up with these low levels by 2018, but there is a bit to go to recover to 2007’s low levels in rural areas.
We can also make regional, urban, or rural comparisons of incomes from the CSO report called Geographical Profiles of Incomes in Ireland.
This report is not based on a survey, but has data on every household that completed a census form for 2016.
The census data are combined with data from income tax returns.
So it is comprehensive, with data available down to district electoral division (DED) level.
But it contains data for only one year, 2016, on incomes, and it is gross household income rather than individual or disposable income.
Gross income is income before taxes.
It measures median income rather than average income.
A median income is one where half the population have levels below that income, and half above.
This avoids giving too much weight to the income of a particularly rich individual or small group of persons (unlike averages).
The map shows median gross household income by county in 2016.
In Division 1, with gross median household incomes exceeding €49,000, are Fingal, South Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Meath, Kildare and Cork county. In Division 2 are Dublin city and Galway, Wicklow, Laois and Kilkenny. In Division 3 are Louth, Offaly, Westmeath, Clare and Limerick.
In Division 4 with median household incomes of between €37,000 and €40,000 are nine predominantly rural counties, (Kerry, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford, Carlow, Mayo, Roscommon, Cavan and Monaghan) and Cork city.
There are only two counties with median incomes below €37,000, namely Donegal and Leitrim. It is somewhat surprising to find Cork county in Division 1, while Cork city is in Division 4.
The data being available at DED level allows a more comprehensive view of where low and high incomes are.
I have taken two arbitrary measures of low gross household income, at €39,000 and €30,000, and have calculated the proportion of DEDs in a number of counties and cities, where the income is less than these figures (represented in the table, above, right).
It is clear from the table that, although average incomes in cities are high, there are significant sections of these cities, where incomes are low.
Over half the DEDs in Limerick and Waterford cities have household incomes below €30,000.
The corresponding rural counties have a much lower concentration of low incomes.
It is also clear that the concentration of low incomes is much lower in Munster than in Mayo or Donegal, where 20 and 37% of DEDs have household incomes below €30,000.
The highest level in any Munster county is Kerry at 9%. What the table does not show is the extent to which towns, as well as remote rural areas, feature among the areas with lower incomes.
Among the DEDs with incomes below €30,000 are Tralee, Listowel, Carrick-on-Suir, Cashel, Tipperary and Ennis. Towns with median household incomes between €30,000 and €39,000 include Cobh, Fermoy, Nenagh, Thurles and Clonmel.