Thursday, June 2, 2011

Politics in state legislatures shifting with losses of rural population

A. G. Sulzberger reports in today's New York Times on the consequences of rural population loss in the legislatures of several states that are popularly thought of as rural. The dateline is Lincoln, Nebraska, from whence Sulzberger reports that over half of the state's population now live in the three counties that are home to Nebraska's three largest metropolitan areas. He summarizes some political consequences of this:
The people who remain in rural parts of the country are used to seeing declining enrollment at schools and shuttered businesses on Main Street, as well as weakening political muscle in Washington. But now they are watching their political power falter even in states that have long been considered synonymous with rural America.
The story notes that only eight of Nebraska's state senators currently list their primary occupation as farmer or rancher, whereas 20 senators listed an agricultural occupation 35 years ago.

Sulzberger also provides anecdotes from other states popularly perceived (at least by residents of the coasts) as rural.Link
In North Dakota, for example, where 79 percent of counties lost population but the Fargo area boomed, more education money has migrated to urban schools and universities. In Kansas, which is using tax exemptions to lure new residents to counties facing double-digit population losses, rural legislators were unable to block a transportation bill favorable to the thriving metro areas. And in Iowa, where the new redistricting map shows gains for urban and suburban areas, rural legislators are already strategizing about their handicap of operating with fewer votes.
Contrast this story with reports like this one from 2009, which suggested that rural populations are disproportionately empowered at the state level. In addition, I've observed the struggle between rural and urban legislators in Arkansas regarding school funding. Read about recent events on that front here. A legislator from Marianna, Arkansas, population 4,385, has been one of the most vocal advocates for rural schools, and he has also provided legal counsel to various districts fighting consolidation.  Sulzberger's story notes the rural-urban struggle for education funding in Nebraska, where schools in Valentine, population 2,737, saw state aid for schools drop from $1.2 million to $400,000 as legislators from urban districts argued that the money should go where the kids are--essentially to Omaha and Lincoln.   

Here's a U.S. government website you can use to determine what percent of any given state's population is rural by any of a number of measures/definitions of "rural." Click on "Rural Definition Mapping Utility" to access the interactive mapping feature. To get data on the percentage of any state's population that is rural, download that state's pdf after clicking on "State Level Maps," and go to page 8 of any given state's data.

If you work through the states systematically, you will find that very few states--even among those popularly thought of as "rural"--have a majority rural population by the U.S. Census Bureau definition: population clusters of fewer than 2,500 people and those living in open territory. One that did in 2000 was Vermont, where a whopping 72.3% of the population live in rural places. Compare that to Arkansas, where 46% of the population lived in rural places a decade ago, and Nebraska, where just 35.1% were rural in 2000. In Montana, the population was evenly divided between rural and urban a decade ago, but I am guessing the 2011 Census shows "urbanites" have gained the upper hand even in Big Sky country.

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