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That Urban/Rural Divide

By Sheila Kennedy on April 29, 2016 in Civic Blog

There are lots of ways to “slice and dice” human populations (and unfortunately, we humans excel in exploiting and magnifying those differences). One dividing line that has not gotten the attention it deserves is the one between inhabitants of rural and urban America.

As the authors of a famous rant–The Urban Archipelagopointed out some years back, America’s cities are big blue dots, many of which are swimming in red seas. For many reasons, people who live in more densely populated areas tend to be more supportive of the institution of government, and less likely to respond to political attacks on its legitimacy. (To take just one example, people who regularly pick up a rifle and go hunting look at gun control issues differently than people worrying that their children will be victims of a drive-by shooting or be on the wrong end of a Saturday-night special.)

That these differences lead to different behaviors at the polls is no surprise; the political problem, however, is that our current method of drawing electoral districts significantly advantages rural areas–at the same time that those areas are rapidly losing population to urban America.

Take Indiana. As Michael Hicks recently reported

In last month’s population report, the number of shrinking counties rose to 54, and those growing faster than the nation as a whole rose to 14. That left 24 counties in relative decline. All the growth is happening in urban places, and all the decline is in rural or small town Indiana. It has been this way for half a century, but the pace is accelerating. This population redistribution matters deeply for Indiana’s health through the 21st century.

Cities grow for simple reasons that cannot be duplicated in rural areas no matter how wishful the thinking. Through the forces of agglomeration, each 5.0 percent growth in population causes GDP per worker to rise by roughly 1.0 percent. This leads to higher wages that in turn attract more educated workers to urban areas, which further boost productivity. In cities, workers combine to be more productive overall than the sum of their individual skills. Economists call this phenomenon ‘increasing returns.’

The phenomenon Hicks reports on is being replicated all over the world, and if the social science research is to be believed, the flow of population from farm to metropolitan area is unlikely to reverse any time soon.

This population distribution creates a real problem for a political system ostensibly based on “one person, one vote.” I have posted previously about gerrymandering, but even when the process of creating districts is fair, our human tendency to move to areas where people are like-minded results in “packed” districts that generate so-called “wasted votes”–a migratory process that Bill Bishop has called The Big Sort. 

It isn’t only that the urban dweller’s vote counts less, troubling as that is.

Municipal areas are the drivers of state economies, but in states like Indiana, the urban economy is still in thrall to decisions made by a predominantly rural legislature. Unsurprisingly, tax policies and distribution formulas favor rural areas with diminishing populations over growing urban and suburban communities, and culture war bills like the recent anti-gay measures in North Carolina and Mississippi typically pass with the votes of rural representatives unconcerned that such measures trigger boycotts that hurt urban enterprises owned by people who generally opposed them.

People living in a downtown high-rise deserve to have their votes matter as much as the votes of people living on a farm. Even more importantly, they deserve to have their laws made by people who understand the needs and realities of city life.

We need to do something to level the playing field, but I’m not sure what that something is.

Sheila Headshot Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is the Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis and former Director of the Center for Civic Literacy. She is the Executive Editor for the Journal of Civic Literacy.  This post was originally published on the blog, sheilakennedy.net and is republished here with the permission of the author.

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Whitney FieldsView all posts by Whitney Fields


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