Data on Americans’ preferences for small towns

Following up on yesterday’s post, here is some survey data from recent decades which shows the preference Americans have for living in small towns:

  • From a 1985 Gallup survey: “In the latest poll, the category preferred by the largest percentage of those surveyed, 23 percent, was a small town with a population of less than 10,000. This group, combined with the 17 percent who said they preferred to live on a farm and the 8 percent who wanted to live in a rural area but not on a farm, accounted for the 48 percent who preferred less populated settings.”
  • From footnote #2 in the first chapter of Wuthnow’s Small-Town America: “[A] 1985 Roper Poll found that 61 percent of those surveyed thought a small town was best for “the kind of friends you’d have,” compared with only 12 percent who thought a big city would be best (26 percent volunteered “no difference”). Small towns received equally large or larger preferences as places for leading a healthy life, privacy, and raising children.”
  • From Pew in 2009: “Americans are all over the map in their views about their ideal community type: 30% say they would most like to live in a small town, 25% in a suburb, 23% in a city and 21% in a rural area.”

A significant issue may be what exactly counts as a small town. A good number of Americans think a small town can include a suburb – this is different than traditional definitions of rural small town. From the same Wuthnow footnote:

Poll results are difficult to interpret because, as I mentioned in the preface, many Americans who live in large metropolitan areas imagine themselves to be living in small towns. In a 2006 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, for instance, 26 percent of those who responded said they lived in a small town, 16 percent said they lived in a rural area, and 57 percent said they lived in a city or suburb (51 percent said they would prefer a small town or rural area if they could live anywhere)… If those responses were taken at face value, 78 million Americans lived in small towns, whereas the US Census showed that only 52 million lived in unincorporated places of under 25,000 (including incorporated places of that size that were in metropolitan areas), and indicated that 222 million Americans lived in urban areas, whereas the poll responses suggested only 174 million…

However you want to put it, a good number of Americans may still prefer small-town values but they now express that by living in suburbs.

America’s small towns are now in the suburbs

A piece arguing that rural small towns are at the core of America misses an important point: many of the American suburbs are now the small towns of today.

There’s been a recognition, he says, that communities must adapt or die. After his book, Hollowing Out the Middle, was published, Carr heard from a number of people from different regions, who were trying a variety of rejuvenation tactics. For example, a career academy in Iowa had begun providing training for high-school students, both college-prep and vocational. Elsewhere, educational and civic jurisdictions were pooling resources and asking employers for input about their needs.

But if such initiatives are to succeed, Conn suggests, they’ll have to listen to Arthur Morgan and stay open-minded. Immigrants can boost local economies; small towns should welcome them, not oppose them. Government is not the enemy of small towns, but many in small towns have grown to distrust government at all levels: The TVA, a giant federal project, was largely a success, and so was rural electrification, another federal project. Today, many small towns rely heavily on state and federal money to keep their economies afloat. Resentment of cities, especially the often mistaken impression that cities soak up all the government spending, is counterproductive. Even Morgan recognized that “the village was too small a unit to fulfill the destinies of human society.” The United States needs its cities. But it need its small towns and rural areas, too.

The population shift of Americans away from small towns and rural areas from the early 1900s to today is quite dramatic. But, it was not just cities that grew: the suburbs came out as the biggest winner with over 50% of Americans now residing there (roughly 30% live in big cities and under 20% live in rural areas).

Even though there are plenty of existing American small towns, for many Americans the true small towns are now suburbs. They have some similar features to the small towns of earlier decades including what residents perceive as a more responsive local government as well as significantly fewer people than the big city. At the same time, they differ significantly: they are not as close-knit, any small suburb is not as cut off socially or geographically from larger population centers, and urban amenities are not far from the suburbs.

Forests, McMansions, and using land

The construction of new McMansions can threaten forests and the logging industry:

But the terrain for logging is fast disappearing, and with it the jobs. The number of loggers has shrunk dramatically over the past 20 years, making Gale one of fewer than a dozen working in the area of the Rensselaer Plateau now, he said. The milling companies that once owned huge swaths of forest across the Northeast are gone, leaving the wooded tracts largely in the hands of investor groups and private-equity funds. The local economy embraced tourism, and well-heeled visitors from the city ― attracted to the bucolic charm ― wanted what Gale called “their own little slice of heaven.” Eager to turn a profit, the investors have been divvying up the land and selling it to developers building massive summer homes in the middle of what was once dense forest.

The transformation may seem invisible from the farm-lined state roads that slither out from Albany. But you can see it from above. Clearings pockmark the lush, green canopy, making way for McMansions. On a helicopter flight last month, HuffPost counted nearly a dozen new houses under construction.

One nonprofit is trying to halt the process by preserving forests that form the backbone of rural economies and play a critical role in combatting climate change. On Tuesday, the Conservation Fund, a national environmental and economic development advocate based in northern Virginia, closed a roughly $25 million deal to buy 23,053 acres of forest straddling the borders of New York, Massachusetts and Vermont…

In rural, wooded areas, the gentrification process can be economically devastating. That’s why privately owned forests like the ones the Conservation Fund buys welcome sustainable forestry, which helps clear out dead wood and make the forests less dense. Forestry-related industries currently provide 2.7 million American jobs and contribute $112 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the Land Trust Alliance, a conservation group.

Sprawl, often marked by the construction of suburban type housing (which can include McMansions), changes the use of land. Common concerns about this include the loss of farmland and habitats as well as changed water systems. Development also affects trees and forests as house builders often just clear sites completely. Trees can be replaced but it is much more difficult to recreate forests.

One aspect of this story that is different from some analyses of sprawl’s effect on nature is that it emphasizes the loss of rural economic opportunities. The idea here is that sprawling McMansions don’t just chew up land; they threaten long-standing local industries. Yet, the choice is sometimes presented this way: either suburban sprawl or untamed, untouched natural land. Is any land truly untouched by human activity? A lot of even protected spaces have been altered over the years for human purposes. This article takes a more realistic approach: the consequences of sprawl aren’t just lost land but the shifting of the land from one economic use (sustainable forestry) to another (the buying and selling of real estate).

Affordable housing shortage affects much of America

A new report from the Urban Institute suggests affordable housing is a concern in both urban and rural counties:

Nationwide, only 21 units are available per 100 extremely low-income renter households (those earning below 30 percent of the area median income) without government assistance. With assistance, it’s 46.

UI has also created a neat interactive map, which is an update from a previous version. It lets users explore the gap between the demand and supply of affordable units in every single U.S. county. (The National Low Income Housing Coalition released a similar report for states and metros this year, based 2015 one-year American Community Survey data. The UI report is based on 2010-2014 five-year estimates, which is better for a county-level analysis.) The UI map also lets users toggle the impact of assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Here’s what the affordable housing deficit looks like in Hays County, Texas. (Urban Institute)

The map shows how much more severe the problem is in urban counties. Overall, they have 42 units per every 100 low-income renting household, compared to 62 among rural counties. But in a blog post, the UI researchers note that while housing costs are lower in the countryside, so are incomes. And poverty rates are higher.

Urban areas are going to get the most attention with this issue since they have more people looking for housing, more government aid, more media, and more developers and builders interested in constructing housing units there. But, if affordable housing is difficult to supply there, how much harder must it be to supply it in more rural areas?

It would be interesting to think about how a lack of affordable housing in rural areas might contribute to affordable housing issues in urban centers. In other words, people who can’t find reasonable housing in rural areas might move to urban areas where they are more housing options but this could also exacerbate existing urban housing issues.

A college degree leads to more geographic mobility

Americans with a college degree are more likely to leave where they grew up and end up in metropolitan regions:

Today, people with a college degree are more likely than they used to be to move to metropolitan regions with good jobs and other people like them, and this means both that those regions do better over time and that the return on that education is even greater. Almost half of college graduates move out of their birth states by age 30, according to Moretti. Only 27 percent of high school graduates do. As booming cities draw in new college-educated workers, employers seeking these workers follow, and cities continue to gain strength like magnets. This improves the prospects of everyone in the region, including those without college degrees. The working-class strongholds that once prospered without college-educated workers, on the other hand, are doing worse and worse, as computers and robots replace the workers whose jobs haven’t been sent overseas, and, as a result, an oversupply of labor brings down wages for everyone still there.

It’s not just that a college degree leads to higher earnings or more opportunities; it is also that people with college degrees tend to cluster in certain locations. Even in a world where technology could theoretically allow workers to be far away from their workplaces, the clustering in desirable cities of employers, cultural scenes, and places to live with a high quality of life is linked to education levels.

Another side effect of this clustering is that cities tend to have diverse and vibrant economies while smaller communities simply can’t access multiple options. Thus, even if a smaller community has a single thriving industry, this may not work well:

Focusing on one type of industry could be a successful strategy; Warsaw, Indiana, a relatively small town in the northern part of the state, is the orthopedic capital of America, with dozens of orthopedic device companies small and large located there and a bustling economy as a result. Elkhart, Indiana is the epicenter of the recreational vehicle industry, and manufacturers and suppliers are located there, creating good jobs when the economy is doing well. Cities and towns may be able to convince a cluster of a certain type of companies to locate there, and reverse their decline. “Every place has to look at its comparative advantage, and find a niche,” Ross DeVol, the chief research officer at the Milken Institute, told me.

Having lived near Elkhart during the financial crisis, such a strategy can look good in boom times but be disastrous in down times.

Looking toward the future, are there any particular industries or sectors that would be willing to spread out geographically in order to build stronger American communities? This might limit their profits or make it difficult to attract certain employees but could it be worthwhile to invest in smaller communities in the long run (either for the communities or also for a competitive advantage)? Even sectors like health care are finding it difficult to maintain facilities in small towns because of the advantages that consolidation and economies of scale offer.

Are we already to the point where people live in rural areas because (1) they are “stuck” there or (2) because they are already well-off and have the resources or option to live there?

Charlotte mayor: rural areas of states hold back big cities

Charlotte mayor Jennifer Roberts discusses the relationship between state legislators and big cities:

ROBERTS: Remember, this is Charlotte. There’s always a way out of the impasse. This is absolutely not something that just Charlotte is facing. I talk to mayors: In Seattle, they have rural areas that often don’t understand what they’re doing—Phoenix, Atlanta, so many other cities have this challenge. And this is a critical issue in America because we have many states that are still controlled largely by rural legislators. And there are different needs. We’re not a one-size-fits-all country. So if you are in a rural area, you’re thinking about things differently. If you’re in a densely developed, urban center that’s dynamic, where change happens every day, you’re looking at things differently than if you’re in a town or rural community where things haven’t changed in decades. And so, my worry for America is that we have states that are holding our cities back.

We have read that cities are the center of innovation. They are laboratories for how we face the 21st century, how we solve the energy crisis, how we work on climate change, how we make sure people are included, how we work on public safety in an increasingly diverse universe of people who are moving, are transient, are mingling, and are living close together. And how do we solve all those issues if we have a rural mentality where things are static? We don’t have the tools. This is a great challenge in America: How do we convey that it’s okay to be different? I love our rural areas. I spend time in the mountains, in small cities, and small towns. We have wonderful people in North Carolina. But, how do we show them that we’re not competing with them in our cities, that it’s not diminishing them? That we are actually providing sales tax for them? Just let Charlotte be Charlotte. Let Charlotte work.

On the one hand, this could be a very real issue: leaders in Charlotte likely want very different things from leaders in small towns and rural counties. This urban-rural dynamic happens in many states, including Illinois where it is Chicago vs. downstate.

On the other hand, I’m guessing states also provide some benefits for cities. Does Charlotte receive a lot of state funding? Are there certain programs or initiatives that it would be hard even for a large city to put together themselves? Think of things like entitlement programs or the DMV or state roads.

I imagine relationships between city and rural leaders could be more beneficial to both in numerous states if they sought to maximize each other’s advantages…but this is unlikely to happen. The urban-rural divide has a long history in the United States going back to an urban North and agrarian South as well as competing visions of idyllic small town life versus the bustling, innovative metropolis.

Why small rural towns turn down economic development opportunities

Not every rural small town wants to add a meat processing plant:

Regional economic development officials thought it was the perfect spot for a chicken processing plant that would liven up the 400-person town with 1,100 jobs, more than it had ever seen. When plans leaked out, though, there was no celebration, only furious opposition that culminated in residents packing the fire hall to complain the roads couldn’t handle the truck traffic, the stench from the plant would be unbearable and immigrants and out-of-towners would flood the area, overwhelming schools and changing the town’s character…

The village board unanimously voted against the proposed $300 million plant, and two weeks later, the company said they’d take their plant — and money — elsewhere.

Deep-rooted, rural agricultural communities around the U.S. are seeking economic investments to keep from shedding residents, but those very places face trade-offs that increasing numbers of those who oppose meat processing plants say threaten to burden their way of life and bring in outsiders…

Nickerson fought against Georgia-based Lincoln Premium Poultry, which wanted to process 1.6 million chickens a week for warehouse chain Costco. It was a similar story in Turlock, California, which turned down a hog-processing plant last fall, and Port Arthur, Texas, where residents last week stopped a meat processing plant. There also were complaints this month about a huge hog processing plant planned in Mason City, Iowa, but the project has moved ahead…

The question of who would work the tough jobs was at the forefront of the debate, though many were adamant they aren’t anti-immigrant. Opposition leader Randy Ruppert even announced: “This is not about race. This is not about religion.”

On one hand, not all jobs are necessarily good jobs. On the other hand, there seem to be larger issues at play: who will get these jobs? What happens when all the workers – who may not share the background of the small town – show up? It would be intriguing to explore what changes to the processing plants would lead to support from community members: guarantees of local hires? Higher wages? No minorities hired?

It would also be worth tracking where these processing plants end up. What one community turns down may be seen as an economic savior in another area. For example, scholars have noted the rise of immigrant populations in American rural areas in recent decades including places like Iowa and Georgia which don’t have the traditional immigrant gateway big cities.