Growing American political divide between urban and rural areas

The urban/rural political divide has grown in the last few decades:

As Democrats have come to dominate U.S. cities, it is Republican strength in rural areas that allows the party to hold control of the House and remain competitive in presidential elections…

The U.S. divide wasn’t always this stark. For decades, rural America was part of the Democratic base, and as recently as 1993, just over half of rural Americans were represented by a House Democrat, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Conservative Democrats often represented rural districts, including Ms. Hartzler’s predecessor, Ike Skelton, who held the seat for 34 years before she ousted him in 2010.

That parity eventually gave way to GOP dominance. In 2013, 77% of rural Americans were represented by a House Republican. But in urban areas—which by the government’s definition includes both cities and suburbs—slightly less than half of residents were represented by congressional Republicans, despite the GOP’s 30-seat majority in the House…

In 1992, Bill Clinton won 60% of the Whole Foods counties and 40% of the Cracker Barrel counties, a 20-point difference. That gap that has widened every year since, and in 2012, Mr. Obama won 77% of Whole Foods counties and 29% of Cracker Barrel Counties, a 48-point difference.

And with this divide between cities and rural areas, the suburbs, particularly ones in the middle between exurbs and inner-ring suburbs, are where politicians fight for votes.

The profiles of a suburban county outside Kansas City and a rural county in Missouri suggests that most people make conscious choices about where they want to live. In other words, everyone in America can live wherever they want and they make these choices based on culture and politics. A common illustration for this is the plight of high school and college age adults and fears of  a rural “brain drain“: they can leave their small town for the big city where they see there is more excitement. To some degree, this is true: Americans are a mobile people yet it is a more complicated process than simply selecting a cultural milieu and parking there for the rest of their lives. On one hand, people can make much more finer-grained decisions than on a county by county basis (particularly in denser areas where there are plenty of communities to choose from) and on the other hand people are pushed and pulled by particular places through race and ethnicity, social networks, economic opportunities, and life changes. The article mentions cultural factors quite a bit but says little about race and ethnicity, a long-standing factor in where people live and evidenced today by continued residential segregation.

Just a note: the second author of this piece is Dante Chinni, also the co-author of Our Patchwork Nation. His analysis could be contrasted with sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s recentl book on small-town America.

Declining rural population in US

While the percentage of Americans living in the suburbs has hit a high of 51 percent and 33 percent of Americans live in cities, an all-time low of 16 percent of the population now lives in rural areas:

The latest 2010 census numbers hint at an emerging America where, by midcentury, city boundaries become indistinct and rural areas grow ever less relevant. Many communities could shrink to virtual ghost towns as they shutter businesses and close down schools, demographers say.

More metro areas are booming into sprawling megalopolises. Barring fresh investment that could bring jobs, however, large swaths of the Great Plains and Appalachia, along with parts of Arkansas, Mississippi and North Texas, could face significant population declines…

The share of people in rural areas over the past decade fell to 16 percent, passing the previous low of 20 percent in 2000. The rural share is expected to drop further as the U.S. population balloons from 309 million to 400 million by midcentury, leading people to crowd cities and suburbs and fill in the open spaces around them.

In 1910, the population share of rural America was 72 percent. Such areas remained home to a majority of Americans until 1950, amid post-World War II economic expansion and the baby boom.

If people were asked to think about the biggest changes in the last 100 years, few might cite this important change: America has shifted from a majority rural population to a majority suburban/urban population. The reasons for this have been well-documented but it is still a large shift away from small towns and farms to suburbs and cities. This has impacted all areas of life: politics, economics, housing, workplaces, families, schools, and more.

It will be interesting to see how rural areas and communities are able or not able to hold on. For example, one area where this gets interesting is healthcare: with more hospitals and organizations consolidating and new regulations coming, who will want to continue to offer rural care?

Many rural counties experiencing population declines

The rural population has been dropping in many places over the last few decades. The newest data from the 2009 American Community Survey shows the continuation of this trend, particularly in rural counties in the Heartland:

But the [Los Angeles] Times analysis of the numbers shows unequivocally that a thick swath of the country, from north Texas to the Dakotas, has lost population…

Data show that many counties in the Great Plains are also experiencing a loss of young people. Johnson said that trend was probably creating a “downward spiral” of population loss in these areas since the young weren’t sticking around to bear children.

“The only thing that might break them out of it,” he said, “is an influx of young Hispanics.”

There is also mention of a few areas, such as Spencer County, Kentucky, or Teton County, Idaho, where generally wealthier residents have actually increased the population.

This data doesn’t really come as a surprise. Small town America has been gone for quite a while now as multiple generations have left rural areas for cities and suburbs. America is a suburban nation today as these places offer jobs, decent schools, single-family homes, and everything else that is part of the suburban “good life.”

(A side note: I’m really enjoying all these news stories based on the American Community Survey data. This relatively recent survey from the Census will be doing more and more in the future as the decennial census is relied on less and less. Maybe news organizations think these sorts of stories are easy to put together or perhaps lots of readers really are interested in a deeper understanding of the complex United States.)