That Urban/Rural Divide

There are lots of ways to “slice and dice” human populations (and unfortunately, we humans excel in exploiting and magnifying those differences). One dividing line that has not gotten the attention it deserves is the one between inhabitants of rural and urban America.

As the authors of a famous rant–The Urban Archipelagopointed out some years back, America’s cities are big blue dots, many of which are swimming in red seas. For many reasons, people who live in more densely populated areas tend to be more supportive of the institution of government, and less likely to respond to political attacks on its legitimacy. (To take just one example, people who regularly pick up a rifle and go hunting look at gun control issues differently than people worrying that their children will be victims of a drive-by shooting or be on the wrong end of a Saturday-night special.)

That these differences lead to different behaviors at the polls is no surprise; the political problem, however, is that our current method of drawing electoral districts significantly advantages rural areas–at the same time that those areas are rapidly losing population to urban America.

Take Indiana. As Michael Hicks recently reported

In last month’s population report, the number of shrinking counties rose to 54, and those growing faster than the nation as a whole rose to 14. That left 24 counties in relative decline. All the growth is happening in urban places, and all the decline is in rural or small town Indiana. It has been this way for half a century, but the pace is accelerating. This population redistribution matters deeply for Indiana’s health through the 21st century.

Cities grow for simple reasons that cannot be duplicated in rural areas no matter how wishful the thinking. Through the forces of agglomeration, each 5.0 percent growth in population causes GDP per worker to rise by roughly 1.0 percent. This leads to higher wages that in turn attract more educated workers to urban areas, which further boost productivity. In cities, workers combine to be more productive overall than the sum of their individual skills. Economists call this phenomenon ‘increasing returns.’

The phenomenon Hicks reports on is being replicated all over the world, and if the social science research is to be believed, the flow of population from farm to metropolitan area is unlikely to reverse any time soon.

This population distribution creates a real problem for a political system ostensibly based on “one person, one vote.” I have posted previously about gerrymandering, but even when the process of creating districts is fair, our human tendency to move to areas where people are like-minded results in “packed” districts that generate so-called “wasted votes”–a migratory process that Bill Bishop has called The Big Sort. 

It isn’t only that the urban dweller’s vote counts less, troubling as that is.

Municipal areas are the drivers of state economies, but in states like Indiana, the urban economy is still in thrall to decisions made by a predominantly rural legislature. Unsurprisingly, tax policies and distribution formulas favor rural areas with diminishing populations over growing urban and suburban communities, and culture war bills like the recent anti-gay measures in North Carolina and Mississippi typically pass with the votes of rural representatives unconcerned that such measures trigger boycotts that hurt urban enterprises owned by people who generally opposed them.

People living in a downtown high-rise deserve to have their votes matter as much as the votes of people living on a farm. Even more importantly, they deserve to have their laws made by people who understand the needs and realities of city life.

We need to do something to level the playing field, but I’m not sure what that something is.

 

 

 

 

31 thoughts on “That Urban/Rural Divide

  1. I have lots of family members living in rural Indiana. I think the divide in rural/urban residents is as serious as racial and economic divides.

  2. Dan,

    “I think the divide in rural/urban residents is as serious as racial and economic divides.”

    You’re right. The rural/urban divide represents the SURFACE tension from the racial and economic divides. The “political battlefield” is on the surface right now. However, It can move very quickly if we do not take action now to the more “deadly’ sub-surface issue of RACE.

  3. Every once in awhile someone points to a US red/blue map and says “look how much of the country or state is red!” Like that’s meaningful.

    Cornfields and forests don’t need government. People do. The wisdom of one man one vote is pretty profoundly based.

    It needs to be preserved. Honored. We need to figure out political processes that preserve not deny it.

    Not only is it profoundly democratic but also far sighted. As the swarm of humans flies past 7B on its inevitable path to 10B or 11B over the next few decades many more of us will live in population dense areas and the problems of dense populations will become more and more of the political agenda.

    Of course it’s a given that Republicans, struggling for any advantage as their brand goes extinct, will do everything possible to preserve one acre one vote. Just another point where they are at odds with democracy and effective government.

    Rural America will always be essential to feed the swarm. They deserve representation and their share of political attention based on their economic impact. But not on the amount of empty land that they claim.

  4. “People living in a downtown high-rise deserve to have their votes matter as much as the votes of people living on a farm. Even more importantly, they deserve to have their laws made by people who understand the needs and realities of city life.”

    The ever-expanding urban areas in Marion County alone have eaten up much of the natural environment; necessary to balance out pollution and nature’s air cleansing green spaces. It is not only cultural differences or a matter of whose votes matter the most; all votes matter but so does our right to breathe clean air. If something was being done, other than spouting “we really must do something”, about the approximately 10,000 abandoned buildings in Marion County, there would be more living space (homes and apartments) for those who prefer suburbs rather than downtown living. There would also be pockets of green spaces helping to clean the environment. We NEED both; but “urban sprawl”, due to population numbers, appears to carry more weight than those of “rural legislature”. Downtown Indianapolis cannot survive with the same zoning ordinances as cornfields and grain silos on dwindling farmlands. Nor can those cornfields and grain silos on our dwindling farmlands survive with urban zoning ordinances. We are losing too much of the beauty and essence of what “Back Home Again In Indiana” used to mean. We need urban areas but not at the cost of losing all rural areas; environmental issues must be considered as vital as high-rises.

    To return to Sheila’s quote:
    “We need to do something to level the playing field, but I’m not sure what that something is.”

    Front page article in our sample copy of USA Today in the Indianapolis Star; “Supreme Court gives states some leeway on political maps”. Sub-headline; “Districts can be drawn so minorities benefit”. In other words; continue your gerrymandering, now with SCOTUS’ blessing and claim these districts benefit minorities. As Linda Ellerbee ended her commentaries, “And so it goes!”

  5. Let us all sit down and watch that old science fiction, but now prophetic, movie; “Soylent Green” to see the looming possibility of our future lives. I believe this should be required viewing in middle-schools; that is the “awakening age” when children begin questioning the world they live in; the world Sheila’s “jaundiced look” refers to.

  6. I think it would take a constitutional amendment requiring districts be drawn as squarely as state borders allow or to take elected officials out of the redistricting process, except for certification of the new maps. It’s not going to happen in my lifetime.

  7. Of course Peggy offers the only solution possible and one that’s eminently practical. Make districting independent of politics. Have a computer do it.

    It will be done sometime after the GOP loses their death grip on state capitols.

    Of course until that happens they will continue to push for either one acre one vote or $1M one vote.

  8. “Municipal areas are the drivers of state economies, but in states like Indiana, the urban economy is still in thrall to decisions made by a predominantly rural legislature. Unsurprisingly, tax policies and distribution formulas favor rural areas with diminishing populations over growing urban and suburban communities…”
    PREACH, Sister Sheila, PREACH! It is past time that the rest of Indiana fully understands that their towns and counties would be far worse off were it not for MarionCounty’s role as the state’s economic driver. Indianapolis does not receive near the proportional share of revenue back from the State that we contribute to state budget coffers. Not only that, but we are burdened by the loss of tax revenue on over $3 bIllion worth of tax exempt property in Marion County . The hospitals, universities, not for profit headquarters and government related agencies located here are used by residents throughout Indiana. The cost of public services that are usurped by nonprofits and infrastructure damage suffered aren’t recovered. My answer: 1. More equitable return of tax revenues to Marion County. 2. An assessment or user fee based on the percentage of square footage of the tax exempt property(not churches), or size of its economic activity, or cost of the basic city services provided to the nonprofit.

  9. Of course it’s possible to view this as an accounting issue. The need to put the beans in the proper bucket.

    In reality though democracy is the only source of freedom. Unless the governed choose who governs freedom will elude us. One man one vote has never been perfect, but only as good as humans can do.

    People have willing given their lives for freedom, not accounting. It’s our turn now.

  10. All states should have congressional districts drawn by their latitude. That is to say, begin at each state’s northern border and go south until you have the required population to constitute that particular segment of the state a “district”. Why would that not work (aside from the fact that it leaves little leeway for shenanigans)?

  11. Mark; why not designated amount of area WITHIN COUNTY LINES rather than population count. The politicians will never keep up with changing population numbers and shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose. Crossing county lines to meet population requirement makes no sense; representatives must deal with separate governments bodies, laws, public safety and education issues which differ from county to county. They live in only one county they represent.

  12. Pete,

    “People have willing given their lives for freedom, not accounting. It’s our turn now.”

    You use the word “freedom a lot.” And terms like the “golden rule.” It helps motivate us in addition to understanding things better. It comes from the fact that you’re a scientist. According to an article, I received via the internet this morning from Academic Press, scientists use metaphor much more than any other occupation.

  13. I live in Hamilton County, Westfield to be specific. We don’t even have Democrats running for the seats. It’s so frustrating to hear all these idiots that are going to “Stop Isis” & “Repeal Obama Care”, and then tout their being a Conservative Christian. No, you are not a Christian. A Christian would welcome all with love. My Dad forwards me the weekly scripture from the Church they attend when in Florida for the winter (a Disciples of Christ Church). This week was the story of Peter eating with the uncircumcised gentiles and then being criticized for it by the circumcised. Peter told them the story of his vision from God and they understood. The point of the story is that even with our differences we can compromise. Sometimes the best way to find that compromise is through story. Touting that “You won’t back down” on a campaign add just sounds like more Republicans that won’t be willing to listen to other views and if they don’t get their way, they will not do anything. I’m disgusted.

  14. Normal shaped districts are not the solution. Even without gerrymandering, the rural areas and therefore republicans will still control the legislature as the populations of cities will contain higher concentrations of democrats resulting in wasted democratic votes. The last time I ran the numbers, 40-some percent of Hoosiers voted for democratic congressional candidates, but republicans got 7 of 9 seats while they should have won 5. To get the correct result by population we need to remove the connection between the seat and specific geography.

  15. “To get the correct result by population we need to remove the connection between the seat and specific geography.”

    Over it; please explain exactly how to assign representatives’ responsibilities and constituents?

  16. Here is a link to Map of Indiana House Districts https://iga.in.gov/information/house_district_map/ District 86 in Marion County is in the shape of a crescent moon from just south of Eagle Creek on the west side north to the Marion County border and then a dip down sliver along Meridian St to 43 rd Street. There are a few others with jagged edges.

    As far as the rural urban divide 100 years ago the vast majority of farms were probably used horses, etc., to plow the fields. It would have been very labor intensive. The 1920 census marked the first time in which over 50 percent of the U.S. population was defined as urban according to the census bureau. (The definition has changed over time) The 2010 US census had 81% of the people in areas defined as urban.

    I cannot say for a fact but I suspect the first thing in line when drawing a political map of districts is to protect the incumbent. The second piece would be the big sort. Pack a district one way or another to favor the political party in power. The big sort would maintain the divide whether it is urban vs rural or based upon race.

    In 2012 Republican Pence won with 49.67% and Democrat Gregg had 46.46%. Glenda Ritz Democrat defeated Republican Tony Bennett 52% vs 48%. So you might think the Indiana House and Senate might be close to 50/50 but not the Republicans have super majorities.

    Obviously, as some have pointed there are certain districts where Democrats and Republicans do not bother to have a candidate and for some it is just a sacrificial lamb put on the ballot.

  17. Hi Christine –

    “The cost of public services that are usurped by nonprofits and infrastructure damage suffered aren’t recovered. My answer: 1. More equitable return of tax revenues to Marion County. 2. An assessment or user fee based on the percentage of square footage of the tax exempt property(not churches), or size of its economic activity, or cost of the basic city services provided to the nonprofit.”

    Just a thought about your suggestion: It is past time for churches to also pay their fair share of the expenses for services they enjoy. Not only are there are too many mega churches that don’t really do anything to help people that need their help, but even average and small churches have also forgotten to help those in need. They have become just like businesses that are focused on serving themselves only.

  18. Top Indiana’s state legislative leadership in both Houses have come from suburban and urban centers for most of my nearly 4 decades as a lobbyist. Mayors have the largest bully pulpit of anyone in their local communities. The Indianapolis Mayor has the largest pulpit of them all.

    Legislators in Indianapois suburbs have exercised iron-fisted control over the state purse strings
    in the State Senate for nearly 40 years. With the exception of Otis Bowen and Frank O’Bannon, all our Governors since 1960 have come from Hoosier cities. The question is – for whom and what have those leaders chosen to use their pulpit?

    Indianapolis for instance gains assistance to keep building and expanding sports arenas and the convention center and downtown hotels while both urban and rural commuities can’t find funds for civic necessities such as police and fire safety and public education. Interestingly, the lobbyists for these sporting expenditures often have suites and season tickets at these sporting venues, but they live in the suburbs.

    The advent of capped property taxes and state control of their revenue-raising options has strapped most Hoosier communities. Growing suburban communities with a growing tax base have fared better, but even their schools are having to run referenda to stay even with population growth.

    Rural communities (and all others as well) have seen their school funds cut year after year to shift their funds to charter and private schools located overwhelmingly in urban centers.

    When the Farm Bureau and State Chamber of Commerce want to protect corporate farms and confined feeding operations for livestock, these rural interests are served. But mostly, both urban and rural residents take a back seat to corporate interests.

    If only those special interest groups were as concerned about family farmers, urban and rural schools, and quality of life measures for all Hoosier communities.

    Cities also “win” assistance when the State Chamber seeks to cut ALL public schools statewide to finance private and charter schools overwhelmingly located in urban centers. The loss of funds is more visible in cities because that’s where the TV markets reside – though most of the media pays very little attention to school funding issues. Nevertheless, much as urban schools are suffering – and their cuts have been huge – they have economy of scale options to conserve that rural schools do not. Urban school systems can close a few buildings, but rural communities with a single high school and elementary school don’t have that option. Urban and suburban schools can run the same buses on 2 or 3 schedules to deliver elementary, middle, and high school kids to school at staggered times. Rural schools with one bus schedule can’t eliminate the only run they have.

  19. Sheila, we know that you are serving on a committee to (hopefully) make redistricting less of a political power endeavor. Do you have any ideas that you would like to share with us on a future blog? If you have ideas, but wish to keep them confidential for the time being, I can appreciate that.

  20. Nancy Papas – Thank You!

    Since I live in a rural district I am not able to have an educated opinion on how urban locations have suffered, but I certainly recognize how my rural area has suffered immensely. Factories with good paying jobs have been leaving this area for three decades. People have had to move away to seek employment that will never again be available here. The tax base here has shrunk immensely and so have the services that taxes used to support.

    Daniels and Pence have brought jobs only to the central Indiana area. The rest of the state is left out. The only jobs that seem to be created in the other cities (Fort Wayne, South Bend, Evansville) have been brought there by their mayors or local business leaders. The state government does nothing to help rural areas acquire jobs to replace those that have been lost.

    Thanks for sharing your inside knowledge with us.

  21. Pete, thought you’d retired to Florida where there is no state income tax. Thought you were living in a gated condo development.

  22. BSH. I live in FL and NY and think that redistricting in all states needs to be fixed. We need to get the people out of it. The article that I posted said that the Feds have regulated it pretty well but, of course, not perfectly.

    I’d love to get some graduate student to research how effective or ineffective what’s left beyond regulation really is in getting party cronies elected.

  23. If we look at Indiana as America, where are the dividers between those who live in the rural regions and commute to cities and among them as distinct individuals only. We are not in fact blue Democrats and red Republicans, but 97 % homegrown citizens. Those “downtowns” may be high in non-profit workers near government and political role model and examiners, auditors, all of the military and service personnel records centers, banks and vaults, power stations on the relay and connection grids. So many of those “downtown” high-rises and connected structures are not permanent residential properties for families and collections of them .
    Almost all workers are commuters to some extents, sharing buildings, grounds, curb cuts, power for the whole country…phones, cables, pipes, tunnels and towers. So many are registered to vote in those rural counties, but commute to the government and transport centers. One third of the nation’s renters provide tenants for seasonal workers (all boarding school populations), temporary employees, itinerant laborers. That includes ALL of the lawful and unlawful business and industrial producers of everything that city denizens cannot produce, make, inspect, handle in any ways at all in their life roles . Every county’s government plans must include adequate provisions for essentials especially for infants and caregivers in case of power outages, breakdowns of communications among food, air, water, any supplies at all for the marketplaces …also commuter centers. http://geology.com/satellite/indiana-satellite-image.shtml

    There are no divisions among union and management members who may also run for offices, same as church members (about 100 per 10,000 children) from anywhere in the world as missionaries and partisans.
    So Marion County probably actually gets a little less massive seasonally and nocturnally, with few live-in servants, resident managers, of the non-profit buildings and campuses. Healthy adults and minors with AIDs and all other communicable human cell contaminants annually reach human rights, military, passport and visa ages as about 4,000,000 in number in the USA alone. So who are the city dwellers prepared to stay on duty all the time until relieved at each site — caring for all captive inhabitants to see each one has constant needs met — communications centers, too? It’s not just the religious order members at Notre Dame and St. Mary’s for teachers. Indiana is small enough that workers can tour all of the principal population centers by aerial viewing before visiting any residents all during office hours.

  24. “Unsurprisingly, tax policies and distribution formulas favor rural areas”

    I don’t know about distribution formulas, but most farmers won’t agree that tax policies favor them.

    Property taxes on my little family farm are over 30K bucks this year, even though our profit margins pushing into negative numbers. That’s a pretty harsh tax policy.

  25. @Chuck, I hear what you’re saying. My sole income is derived from a family farm in KY. I reside in Indiana, and the family farm in KY is under a lease/rental agreement because I am not capable of running a 1000 acre farming operation.

    At present, I pay $80K in Federal taxes after my all IN and KY property tax deductions, $10K in Indiana taxes simply because I live here, and $12K in KY taxes because my farmland is located in KY. In total, I paid $102K taxes in 2015. That amount approximates 50% of the rent received from the farmland.

    Chuck, I understand every word you write. On the other hand, I’m not so sure those folks who live in urban areas understand one iota of which we speak.

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