Bridging the rural/urban divide

Urban and rural areas often have starkly different values, opportunities and stress factors…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

The state of Washington is a microcosm of the nation.

Our own county is an even more concise version of the cultural/educational/economic and political chasm that seems so impenetrable.

There was a study of the political allegiances of Americans recently. It turns out that most of us vote based on two thoroughly non-political factors.

The vast majority of us vote either as our parents did or as our neighbors do. In other words, region and family define our voting patterns – not philosophy or attitudes about taxes, the range and role of government and other traditionally political frameworks or philosophies.

Urban and rural areas often have starkly different values, career opportunities and stress factors. And in our society, people often leave one in search of the opportunities of the other.

Rural areas, largely dependent on extractive economies, from mining to oil to agriculture, have very different attitudes and passions regarding everything from vehicles to food to entertainment from their urban cousins who, for the most part, keep their hands clean as they work in more tech related – and often better paying – career tracks.

It’s no surprise that these life experience differences would be reflected across everything from the books we read to what we eat to what we care most about.

And, of course, how we connect.

Consider this; access to high-speed internet is the gateway to everything. Education, work, health care, information access and even a social life (especially in a time of a disaster or nationwide pandemic) depend directly on broadband.

Yet 22.3% of rural residents lacked access to high-speed internet as of 2018, compared with 1.5% of urban residents.

Rural areas might be classic, if stereotypical “Trump country” but you’d never know it by the Trump administration’s decision to increase, if not solidify the digital divide in 2018 by reversing an Obama-era rule that categorized broadband as a public utility, like water and electricity.

With broadband regulated as a utility, the government could ensure fairer, wider and cheaper access even in regions that were less profitable for service providers.

This reversal left rural communities more vulnerable to the whims of increasingly fierce and technology-based competitive markets.

Rural areas tend to feel isolated, even cut-off, from the best times -and benefits – which urban areas seem to dominate.

One has to wonder, since inequities fuel populist political movements, whether the social and economic divides are fomented or at minimum, exacerbated, by policy makers for their own purposes – not the constituents they are pledged to serve.

Urban dwellers, skewing to the younger, and working, ages, especially those who are not homeowners (and thanks to rapidly increasing home prices, that is more and more of them) have few, if any qualms about leaving “home” (wherever that might be) or “following the money” wherever it might lead.

Small towns get smaller as larger cities offer more and more opportunities. As smaller towns get smaller, their budgets follow, but costs are mostly fixed or non-negotiable as in infrastructure or schools.

If you look at a tax map of Washington, for example, you’ll see that most counties in the Puget Sound area pay far more in state taxes than they get in return, while the more rural areas pay far less and receive much more.

This principle holds true on a national level when it comes to federal taxes as well.

On the face of it, it might not seem “fair” – but on a local, and certainly on a national level, it seems necessary.

Agricultural goods, for example, sold at barely-profitable basic prices, pass through multiple hands (many times they are literal human hands) before they rearch their final market.

That apple that the urban-dweller has for a snack had dozens, or more, stops along the way to its final destination.

And that dynamic is at work for virtually every food or piece of clothing, or gallon of gas we in the city might buy.

We in the city, for our own good, as well as for the benefit of rural areas, need to, and should want to, keep our small towns financially solvent.

Like cities, rural area have their own income inequities – only 6% of rural people still live in counties with economies that are farm dependent.

Farms, like cities, are far larger than they used to be.

Decades of policies favoring consolidation of agriculture have emptied out the populations of vast areas of rural, and once prosperous, landscapes.

Besides becoming industrialized, the agricultural economy has become more centralized- the top 8% of farms, for example, across America now own more than 70% of American farmland.

And, adding insult to injury, rural people (and their farms) are increasingly vulnerable to decisions made by bureaucrats with soft and clean hands in urban corporate agri-business boardrooms.

The bottom line is that rural communities get less and less of the wealth. The inequity, hence the divide, becomes much greater. Those counties with industrialized agricultural are more likely to have unsafe drinking water, lower incomes, fewer career opportunities and greater economic inequality.

2020 has, as we might have expected, up-ended, reversed, solidified and splintered these dynamics.

The WFH (work from home) trend just might be the salvation of small-town America. The departure from America’s (and the world’s) major metropolitan areas just might lead to the largest urban out-migration the world has ever known.

Urban real estate prices alone are motivation to leave our urban centers. Mix in urban crime, stir in open space, good schools and broadband and you might have an irresistible recipe for professional relocation.

The bottom line is that agricultural areas need our ports and infrastructure and we need their produce – plus, we love their open spaces, recreational areas and, yes, most of us certainly wish we had their traffic.

With the right infrastructure – and policies – ( the long simmering differences – which we have seen erupting into threats or violence – just might cool enough to bring a shared and more equitable and stable economy to us all.


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