Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Compelling report on rural-urban economic differences in Colorado--and their impact on the 2016 election

The Associated Press reported an excellent (if also somewhat depressing) feature story a few days ago under the headline, "Divided America:  The Rural-Urban Split from Rocky Ford to Denver."  The report highlights rural-urban difference, with Rocky Ford, in nonmetropolitan Otero County illustrating "rural" economic decline and population loss and Denver representing "urban" flourishing.  This is a very rich story that captures a great deal of nuance and a range of issues that I have been writing about for several years:  population loss, rural economics, attachment to land, water, and--of course--the rural vote.

Here's an excerpt about Rocky Ford and one of its residents, Peggy Sheahan:
Middle-class jobs vanished years ago as pickling and packing plants closed. [Sheahan's] had to cut back on her business repairing broken windshields to help nurse her husband after a series of farm accidents, culminating in his breaking his neck falling from a bale of hay. She collects newspaper clippings on stabbings and killings in the area — one woman's body was found in a field near Sheahan's farm — as heroin use rises.
The author then depicts thriving Denver and one of its young residents, Andrea Pacheco, commenting that these two women--Sheahan and Pacheco--don't know each other.  Naturally, they don't know each other because rural and urban and separate hemispheres which rarely converge--at least that is what the author suggests:
There are few divides in the United States greater than that between rural and urban places. Town and country represent not just the poles of the nation's two political parties, but different economic realities that are transforming the 2016 presidential election. 
Cities are trending Democratic and are on an upward economic shift, with growing populations and rising property values. Rural areas are increasingly Republican, steadily shedding population for decades, and as commodity and energy prices drop, increasingly suffering economically. 
The political divide goes even deeper than simply between the two parties. In the GOP primary, rural areas voted reliably for Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose angrier style of politics many analysts argued were too harsh and off-putting to play well with a broader electorate. Urban and suburban Republicans were more likely to support candidates widely seen as more electable like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Ohio Gov. John Katich [sic]. 
The story quotes Scott Reed, political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who has advised Republican campaigns in the past:
The urban-rural split this year is larger than anything we've ever seen.
The story also addresses other aspects of the disconnect between rural and urban, including the fact that many rural voters feel that urban residents don't understand them and state legislatures and officials do not value them.  They mourn the political clout they no longer have, especially in comparison to the state's urbanites.  Here are some key excerpts:
  • Otero County and other far-flung rural areas face an uphill battle against geography. Economic development officials say businesses increasingly relocate to areas close to international airports, putting far-flung parts of the country at a natural disadvantage. 
  • Residents are painfully aware that they lack the numbers, and corresponding political clout, of Colorado's urbanites.
  • Kevin Karney, an Otero County commissioner, noted that the state Department of Transportation doesn't plow Otero's roads in the winter overnight, because its crews have been shifted to keep snow-free the interstate running from Denver to Colorado's ski resorts. "It's like rural Colorado doesn't matter," Karney said.
  • Eric Van Dyk feels overlooked. The 40-year-old farms as a labor of love — he works fields of hay, corn and small grains, then hustles to the town of Rocky Ford where he teaches agriculture at the local high school to pay the bills. The running joke in the region is that farmers have to have a day job to support their hobby.
  • Van Dyk is happy with his rural life — its quiet, close community ties and a connection with the land that an urbanite who dines at organic restaurants will never fathom. But he's aghast at what he sees as a rising number of people in his county relying on food stamps rather than hard work but acknowledges it's tough to make a living in Otero County. 
The story quotes Richard Florida, a prominent urban theorist about the chasm between rural and urban:  
People in urban and rural areas are living very different lives and experiencing the world very differently.
Finally, the story contrasts the experience of rural homelessness--a burgeoning problem--with the challenge of rural gentrification.

I'm not sure the extent to which the political divide is caused by rural-urban difference versus some other axis of difference that overlaps with the rural-urban axis or continuum, e.g., the economic fortunes the story suggests.  But given that this story plays up rural-urban difference with respect to economics and also in relation to politics, it is interesting to contemplate the parallels between Colorado and the wider United States as we approach the Presidential election and the recent Brexit vote, which I wrote about here.