Friday, August 8, 2014

Red State, Blue City: How the Urban-Rural Divide Is Splitting America - The Atlantic

This is an older article in The Atlantic, but it goes to something I discuss in my courses when we explore demographic research. Looking at "red state-blue state" dichotomies ignores that the real divide is Rural vs. Urban and that this has little to do with how many scholars and reporters have argued about "liberal vs. conservative" and other political issues with maps.

Red State, Blue City: How the Urban-Rural Divide Is Splitting America - The Atlantic
The new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside. Not just some cities and some rural areas, either -- virtually every major city (100,000-plus population) in the United States of America has a different outlook from the less populous areas that are closest to it. The difference is no longer about where people live, it's about how people live: in spread-out, open, low-density privacy -- or amid rough-and-tumble, in-your-face population density and diverse communities that enforce a lower-common denominator of tolerance among inhabitants.
Consider the following claims often made on the Internet, especially via social media like Facebook or Twitter:

1. Red States have more poor counties, so "Red" policies must be to blame.
No, rural counties fit these descriptions, and they did 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and even back to the Civil War. It makes little difference what the political leadership of a state might be: rural counties lack economic diversity.

2. Red States are ignorant.
Yes, rural areas and the states they represent have lower median educational attainments. Again, that distorts the rural/urban divide more than it reveals any truth. More universities are in the oldest and largest urban centers. There are exceptions to this, thanks to the Land Grant universities, but most leading research institutions are in metropolitan areas.

The "City Lab" of The Atlantic recently noted a study that people with the highest IQ scores (yes, another debate) drift towards cities as young adults, and then retreat to the suburbs or exurbs. In other words, cities are where learning is most available.

This is a chicken-and-egg problem for states. How do you attract an intellectual class without cities and large universities? I'm not sure you can, no matter your political persuasion. Universities draw cutting-edge employers, which leads to families with higher incomes and higher educational attainment. Online education and other innovations won't change this.

3. Red States resent the government, while relying on it.
Look at a map of federally controlled lands. National parks, wilderness areas, military bases, and so on. What you find is that these lands aren't in the Northeast. The West is where we have such spaces, inherently lowering population densities in some regions.

Is it really "dependent" of Texas or Nevada to have military bases and personnel in large numbers? It is really "dependent" to have an Interstate pass through a state, used to transport goods nationally? These are complex debates, certainly, but states without control of massive sections of their land have already given something significant to their fellow citizens.

4. Blue States offer more opportunity for mobility.
Actually, the class divisions in New York or San Francisco exceed the inequality of most rural areas. If you look at median incomes, or averages, then cities look great. But, one in 25 New Yorkers is a millionaire, living in a city with extreme poverty and homelessness. Cities mask poverty, because they have wealthy enclaves.

Random Thoughts…
The gap is so stark that some of America's bluest cities are located in its reddest states. Every one of Texas' major cities -- Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio -- voted Democratic in 2012, the second consecutive presidential election in which they've done so. Other red-state cities that tipped blue include Atlanta, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Birmingham, Tucson, Little Rock, and Charleston, S.C. -- ironically, the site of the first battle of the Civil War. In states like Nevada, the only blue districts are often also the only cities, like Reno and Las Vegas.
When we assume "Republican" or "Democratic" or "Libertarian" ideals have shaped the economies of states, counties, or cities, we're ignoring the fact that leadership changes, over and over again. Yet, the same cities and counties at the bottom of the United States in a variety of metrics today were at the bottom in 1950, 1900, 1850, and 1800. Mississippi was never "great" and probably never will be, no matter the political leadership. Likewise, New York might remain "great" thanks to the elites that live there and attract other elites.

Can a city or state change? Certainly. Look to Chicago or Detroit for cities that declined in a century or less. Or, Dallas and San Francisco reveal an opposite trend. But, generally regions seem to be locked into their geographies and histories.

I don't believe a "conservative" or "libertarian" could easily save most rural areas or cities in decline. Nor do I believe, by any stretch, that "liberal" or "progressive" policies would catapult Louisiana, Arkansas, or Mississippi into the top ten states by any major metric of quality of life: educational attainment, average salary (adjusted, off-course), innovation, productivity.

Why do we insist on Red and Blue maps at the state level, when the real maps are nothing more than population density? Rural vs. urban is the major divide between Americans.

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