Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Trends of the 2020s: The Rural-Urban Divide

The growing gap in the wellbeing of rural and urban America is an intractable problem likely to worsen in the 2020s. Here's why the problem won't go away. Over the years, ongoing urbanization has "sorted and segregated national populations" by personality type, according to Will Wilkinson, vice president for research at the Niskanen Center. In his paper, The Density Divide: Urbanization, Polarization, and Populist Backlash, Wilkinson examines research on personality type and selective migration and uses the lessons learned to explain the rural-urban divide.

Urban areas are increasingly home to people who score higher on the "openness to experience" personality domain, Wilkinson says. "People high in openness seek novelty, like to travel, are interested in other cultures, try new foods, are motivated to learn, and are relatively comfortable with ethnic and cultural difference," he explains. Population density and openness to experience are highly correlated, in part because those who are high in openness are also more likely to migrate. As urban areas accumulate people higher in openness, rural areas are increasingly populated by those who are less open. "Those low in openness are wary of change and more likely to hew to tradition, remain close to home, and feel unsettled by cultural difference." They are stuck in place, resistant to moving despite the problems of rural America—depopulation, the loss of jobs, lower incomes, relatively poor health, and widespread drug abuse. Rather than move to places of opportunity, they succumb to what economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case call "deaths of despair." (For a chilling account of this phenomenon, see Who Killed the Knapp Family? by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in the New York Times.)

The rural-urban divide is likely to widen in the 2020s not only because of what Wilkinson calls the "density divide" between urban and rural personalities, but also because of the "small-state bias" in our electoral system. Those high in openness tend to be more liberal and Democratic. Those low in openness tend to be more conservative and Republican. "Under the conditions of the density divide," Wilkinson concludes, "the constitutionally baked-in overrepresentation of sparsely populated states lends Republicans an enormous structural advantage, and as America's population continues to concentrate in highly urbanized states, this bias grows worse."

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