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Rural v. Urban America: It's Mainly Cultural

There was a most interesting article today in the Washington Post. It reported on a recent poll taken by WaPo and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The poll interviewed 1700 adults living in rural, suburban and urban settings and focused on a host of what are easiest to call “cultural” differences. In particular, they looked at attitudes toward immigrants, beliefs about welfare programs and who benefits from them, opinions about income levels and unemployment, growth or lack thereof in the economy, and, of course, support for one or another presidential candidate. The main focus was exploration of the divide between rural and urban America. They found some things that go against common wisdom. There’s a lot in the study and much of it is covered in the WaPo article which can be found here:

But we can distill the data down to several essential features. The main one that jumps off the page is the disconnect between belief and reality. Those who live in rural settings believe that unemployment in their areas is higher than in the cities — it is, but only by a tiny amount, less than 1%. They think that poverty levels are higher — they’re not, they are virtually identical. The believe that government support programs favor groups that they feel are unworthy including racial and ethnic minorities and, of course, immigrant groups — the data show otherwise. When asked about overall income levels rural groups think they are worse off than city-dwellers — the numbers belie them. They also reveal more racist beliefs and anti-immigrant opinions especially about jobs, who takes them and taxes, who pays them.

The authors don’t touch on why these differences are there. I think one of the wedges that drives the divide is that rural folks are more likely to watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. The demographics of Fox News watchers reveals a higher proportion of those who live in rural counties. Several studies have shown that those who get their news from Fox are significantly less well informed than virtually everyone else — including those who don’t watch the news on a regular basis. 

Rural communities also tend to be more homogenous so residents are less likely to encounter minorities and immigrants leaving them open to cultural memes about them. The lack of exposure means that they are less likely to have the first-hand experience of most suburban and city-dwellers. They also tend to have higher levels of religiosity, particularly Evangelical Christian which, again, tends to keep them within communities of the like-minded which fosters prejudice and dispenses misinformation.

But, interestingly, what also came from the study was that many of the factors that most pundits and political analysts thought were the keys to whether particular areas supported Trump or Clinton didn’t show up. Rural communities voted overwhelmingly for Trump but the income distributions of the two didn’t differ. Similarly, city-dwellers voted strongly for Clinton and, again, independent of family income. Poor rural areas voted for Trump; poor urban areas for Clinton. Well-off rural areas went for Trump; well-off suburban and urban ones backed Clinton.

What we’re seeing develop in America is a cultural divide that’s based largely on myth. Rural people believe they’re being screwed by the government, the cities, the coastal elitists — but they’re not. They think people of color or who worship differently are being granted special considerations — but they’re not. It’s not a pretty picture and it doesn’t auger well for the future.

I’d be curious to see the outcome of a similar study done in Canada. The original immigrants in America and Canada came from the same European stock. In the centuries since then both countries expanded their policies and in similar ways. The overall ethnic and economic demographics are pretty much the same with regard to urban versus rural populations. Both countries also dealt with their indigenous peoples rather poorly.

Canada didn’t have slavery — our original sin. They are more likely to embrace communitarian ideals and more comfortable with multi-culturalism. Importantly, several decades ago Canada embarked on a shift in educational programs incorporating civic lessons that emphasized tolerance and acceptance. The government also moved toward mitigating some of the socio-cultural damage that still lingers from the abusive treatment of the Aboriginal tribes. And they don’t have Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or any Canadian equivalents — and those who live close enough to the border to pick them up typically don’t bother.

I’d expect the rural-urban divide in cultural beliefs to be much weaker there — if exhibited at all. If so, there are lessons to be learned.

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