Michael Hicks directs the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His columns appear in the Indianapolis Business Journal, among other publications, and while I have my disagreements with certain of his research perspectives, he often raises issues worth considering.
Hicks began by cautioning against the prevailing image of rural America as a monolith. It’s an important caution: rural communities differ from each other economically and in the degree of diversity of their populations.
That said, they also share common challenges and characteristics.
Over the last century, America’s rural counties haven’t really grown. We have roughly the same number of rural residents as we did in Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, but urban America is more than five times larger. Four out of five Americans live in urban counties as designated by the Office of Management and Budget. To be fair, many of the urban counties have plenty of row crops in them, and rural counties have many small cities. Also, much of the growth in urban places came in formerly rural counties, as has always been the case. Still, urban counties differ in other meaningful ways that are likely to influence future policy. The second big issue is taxes and spending.
Rural places are large beneficiaries of federal dollars. By some estimates, per capita spending by the federal government is twice as high in rural than urban places. Most of this goes into agriculture subsidies, so rural communities probably don’t perceive the spending. Most may not actually benefit from it. Still, that is a legitimate critique offered by urban taxpayers, who foot most of the bill. Rural residents ought to be more conscious that these large subsidies provide few benefits for their community, while alienating urban taxpayers.
There’s no national study, but here in Indiana, rural places are also big beneficiaries of state tax dollars. This is per a 2011 study jointly authored by Ball State and the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute. In that study, we estimated that rural places get more than $560 more per resident in taxes than they pay, while urban places get almost $160 less per resident than they pay. It is a plain fact that state and federal taxpayers subsidize rural places at the expense of cities and suburbs. What is not so clear is whether or not this spending makes a meaningful difference in the lives of rural people. I suspect it does not. This is almost certainly true in every other state.
Not only do state and federal distribution formulas advantage rural areas over urban ones, but Hicks notes that rural communities tax themselves less than urban places. In Indiana, per capita taxes are approximately ten percent lower in rural areas than they are in urban counties, and it is likely that this is true nationally.
As Hicks acknowledges, this pattern means that taxpayers in growing metropolitan places–places that need to repair and extend their infrastructures and municipal services–are subsidizing static and declining rural areas. He suggests there will be a reckoning–and certainly, in Indiana, with our ill-advised constitutionalized tax caps, that reckoning will come sooner rather than later, because the state’s urban areas are being starved of desperately needed resources.
What Hicks doesn’t mention is a significant political reason for this disparity in resources: gerrymandering.
In Indiana–and other red states where Republicans control redistricting– a majority of electoral districts have been drawn to ensure that they contain majorities of reliably Republican voters–and those voters are overwhelmingly rural. The result is that a super- majority of the state’s lawmakers are responsive to rural interests and dismissive of the needs of the urban areas that have been carved up by map-makers–despite the indisputable fact that the urban areas are the state’s economic drivers.
Talk about “makers” and “takers”!
It’s one more inequity we won’t get rid of until we get rid of gerrymandering.