Our Urban and Rural Cousins

Why do we hold different attitudes and values?  At least some of our differences arise quite naturally from geography and demography – rural and urban situations are quite different.  Cynical politicians and media use those differences to divide us. We don’t have to fall for it.  We should vote for leaders who will honestly address our different needs.

City Country Mouse - Scott GustafsonArt credit: Scott Gustafson

Three generations of Americans had grown up in a situation where most loyal Republicans live in the rural counties while most loyal Democrats live in the urban areas. (See our blog of August 14, 2017.) With all the anger being expressed by the true believers on either side, about the other side, it might be useful to gain some perspective on the differences between urban and rural attitudes.

Urban/rural tensions are an old story. More than 2,600 years ago a slave and story teller named Aesop wrote a fable about a city mouse and his cousin, the country mouse.  The city mouse visited the cousin and found his simple food and simple life unappealing. He invited his cousin to the city, where the food and lifestyle were much richer – but also where the country mouse faced new dangers such as cats and dogs who wanted to eat him. According to Aesop, country life may be simple but city life can be scary and dangerous.  Here is the 1936 Walt Disney version, courtesy of YouTube.

Urban and rural realities are different, even if mutually dependent.  How different are rural and urban realities? Let’s consider geography and demographics.  The approximately 1,900 counties in the US classified as rural or mostly rural held 14 percent of our population and 72 percent of our land in 2016.[1]  In those places, most people lived in widely dispersed small towns and communities.  The average population density in rural counties in 2010 was 20 people per square mile.  After The Great Migration, most of the rural population has been strongly White and non-Hispanic.[2]  This fact, combined with the dispersed nature of the population, means that many people in rural areas could live much of their life without seeing many persons of color if they avoided the cities.[3]  The urban and mostly urban counties hosted 86 percent of the US population in 2010. Most of those people lived in cities.  The average population density in urban and mostly urban counties was 192 people per square mile, almost 10 times higher than the rural density.  The White, non-Hispanic population was only 44 percent of the urban total.  Thus, in most cities, people of all colors and cultures bump into each other quite frequently.

Geography and demography drive at least some of the differences in our attitudes.  Here are several examples.

  • Should we fear or welcome immigrants? People are more likely to become trusting of others unlike themselves only after long association.[4]  Where would that be?  Not the rural countries where foreign-born residents made up only 2.3 percent of the population according to Census Bureau data for 2011-2015. By contrast, nearly 15 percent of the urban counties were born outside the US.  Urban populations are used to newcomers, and can see for themselves that the they are hard workers and good people.  In fact, immigrants’ children usually become fully integrated with far higher educational and income levels (and paying more in taxes) than their parents – provided they are not segregated from the rest of society.[5]  More generally, people living in big cities really couldn’t live so tightly packed together if they didn’t have some kind of “get-along” culture.
  • Does regulation stifle freedom or preserve our happiness? Population density brings certain pressures that rural dwellers are less likely to feel.  When people live close to one another, their choices are more likely to affect many people around them.  History is full of examples.  Entire cities used to burn down because buildings were constructed of highly combustible materials. The Great Fire of London in 1666 started in a baker’s shop and spread rapidly to the rest of the city, destroying roughly 70,000 out of 80,000 homes.  Similar stories can be found in the US: among them are Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.  The frequency of such disastrous fires fell only after more regulations were put into place requiring less combustible building materials.  Similarly, entire cities used to fall victim to communicable diseases.  The frequency of the problem has been diminished by regulations requiring improved water quality, better sewerage services, trash removal, mandatory immunizations and so on.
  • Should government be limited as a threat or encouraged as a source of help? People in urban areas see a clear need for regulation and services such as fire departments, water supplies, trash removal, health departments, public transportation, and so on. For them, the government is more often a source of help than an oppressor.  By contrast, many people in rural counties directly undertake the responsibilities for their own health, safety, and transportation. They’re proud of their independence and see little need for any government interference or handouts.  This independence might be a matter of personal choice for some, but it is also a financial choice.  It is much more expensive to provide a lot of services to widely dispersed populations.  Yet, in some cases, it would be really helpful to find a way: the opioid crisis is hitting us everywhere.
  • Is taxation a burden or a price worth paying? States with relatively more urban residents can raise taxes more efficiently than rural states. Urban economies tend to have broader and deeper tax bases.  Moreover, urban populations have more incentive to pay taxes because the connection between what they pay and the services they receive is obvious. For them, taxes are a price worth paying.  Rural populations receive fewer government services (again because it is more expensive to provide them in rural areas), so it is tempting for them to ask if their taxes might be subsidizing urban services.  The answer varies by county.  Data for federal taxes and spending in 2010 show 30 percent of the counties were subsidizing the other 70 percent.  Of those paying subsidies (federal taxes were larger than federal spending in their counties), half were small population counties of 50,000 people or less.  Of those receiving subsidies (federal spending in their counties exceeds federal taxes collected), only 20 percent were large population counties.

Aesop forgot that city mice and their country cousins need each other.  Urban consumers take up most of the produce, livestock, and minerals from the rural areas – yet rural consumers depend upon technology and finance that comes mainly from the urban areas.  A healthy urban sector helps grow the rural sector and vice versa.  This is one of the oldest and most famous patterns of economic development.

Deliberately pitting urban and rural populations against each other can get some very nasty results.  In the early days of the Soviet Union, society was mainly agricultural, but Stalin wanted to make his country into an industrial super power. Part of his strategy was to forcibly collectivize the farming class and use their grain output for exports to pay for industrialization.  This policy didn’t work well. By 1933, the Soviet Union was suffering from mass starvation.  Millions of people died.  The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia tried the opposite.  They chose to drive most of the city people into the countryside to become farmers. This did not go well, the effort turned into a genocide, millions died.

Urban and rural differences are natural, yet cynical political and media leaders use those differences to divide us. We don’t have to fall for it.  Arguments that pit one side against the other are almost surely dishonest.  For example, it’s common to find fights over funding roads in urban areas versus services needed in rural areas.  This is a false choice.  Urban growth generates higher income for rural households.  Urban growth also generates more tax dollars, many of which get spent in rural areas.  Yet, it is the rural roads the bring the food sold in the cities.  A balanced approach is needed.  Similarly, fights over water usage rights often pit urban and rural areas against one another.  A balanced approach is needed.  Directing too much water to the cities (or to cool computer server farms) and away from farming and ranching will reduce food output and raise food prices for consumers. Too much water going the other direction will create health and sanitation crises in the cities, slow industrial output, and reduce demand for rural produce.  You might think of other examples.  If you do, please send them to us at ffa.democracy@gmail.com.

Want to take action?

Consider ways to build bridges between people living in rural and urban areas.  It can be done!  Here are some examples.  One of the leaders in this effort is 4-H. Could the effort be scaled up?

Consider ways to get rural and urban politicians to build bridges.  This too can be done. Here is an example at the mayoral level. Could this be extended to state and federal legislatures?

Want to learn more?

End Notes

[1] USDA.

[2] US Bureau of Census and Housing Assistance Council, 2012.

[3] The exceptions are portions of the South-West where Hispanic people have a higher share and parts of the South-East where African-American people have a higher share.  Many of these communities are relatively segregated from the larger populations around them.

[4] A Post-Kaiser poll finds that exposure to even a few immigrants can build positive attitudes.  In rural areas where less than 2 percent of the population are immigrants, less than 4 in 10 residents believe immigrants strengthen the country. That belief rises to nearly 6 in 10 in areas where at least 5 percent of rural residents were born outside the United States.

[5] National Academy of Science, September 2017.


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