An Urban's Rural View

Prosperous Cities, Struggling Small Towns

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Of the 3,000 counties in the U.S., 1,800 are made up of rural areas and small towns having no connection to a metropolitan area. These counties, home to 46 million Americans, used to have a wholesome image.

In the past, Americans dreamed of escaping the crime and crowding of the big cities and returning to the land -- or retreating to places like Andy Griffith's Mayberry, which the writer Rod Dreher described as "a sleepy, slightly eccentric country village where nothing much happens, problems are mild and manageable, and conflicts are solved through neighborliness and the application of aw-shucks common sense (usually the sheriff's)."

Alas, times have changed. Pristine countryside and idyllic small towns still exist, to be sure. Peek online and you'll find oodles of lists of the most charming, most affordable, most livable and otherwise "best" small towns in America.

Overall, though, rural areas and small towns are increasingly mired in social and economic problems. For some of these problems, they've traded places with big cities. On Dec. 29 of last year, the Wall Street Journal dug into the data to illustrate this switch under the headline, "The Divide Between America's Prosperous Cities and Struggling Small Towns -- in 20 Charts" (http://tiny.cc/…).

The disturbing trends the Journal points to include:

-- Divorce. In big cities and their suburbs, 10.3% of the adults over 15 were divorced in 2015. In small towns and rural areas, 12.1% were. It was the other way around in 1980: Divorce was much more infrequent in rural areas and small towns -- around 5% -- and much more common in big cities -- close to 8%.

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-- Teen-age births. This was another case of trading places. Big city central areas were averaging 24.3 births per 1,000 teen women in 2015, down from close to 70 in 1990. Rural areas and small towns also had a decline, but in 1990 their rate was lower than the cities at about 60. In 2015, it was higher than the cities at 43.3.

-- Cancer. Both cities and rural areas and small towns saw a decline in cancer deaths per 100,000 of population between 1980 and 2014. But the decline in cities was much bigger. As a result, rural areas and small towns went from having a lower rate of cancer deaths than cities in 1980 to having a higher rate in 2014. Cardiovascular-disease deaths showed a similar trend.

-- Violent crime. Rural areas and small towns had fewer violent crimes than big cities in 2015, but the gap had closed so much over the previous two decades as to essentially wipe out the "safety premium" the country had enjoyed, giving urban families wanting to raise their children in safe environments less incentive to move to the country.

-- Population. Large metro centers and their suburbs had 9%-plus more people in 2016 than in 2007, whereas the growth in rural and small-town population was only 0.4%. If current trends continue, rural areas and small towns could soon experience more deaths than births. That's already happening in some rural and small-town communities.

-- Working men. In rural areas and small towns, the male labor-force participation rate (the percentage of men who either have a job or are actively looking for one) fell from 65% in 1980 to 56% in 2015. There was also a decline in large metro centers and suburbs, but a much smaller one, leaving them with 2015 participation rates at 65%-plus.

-- Maternal deaths. The U.S. has the worst rate in the developed world of women dying of pregnancy-related complications, and the rate is much worse in rural areas and small towns than in large metro centers -- 2.02 deaths per 100,000 versus 1.23. The Journal notes, "From 2005 to 2014, 15% of rural hospitals closed or ended maternity services. In suburban and urban areas, 5% did."

I could go on. The Journal does, but these examples make the point. They provide statistical evidence of trends people who live in these areas see every day.

It's possible, I would concede, that some of these statistics overstate the case. They have the feel of having been selected to make a point. It's natural to wonder whether statistics might exist that counter the theme of rural decline, statistics that paint a more nuanced picture of the relative merits of city and country. You could also nitpick the statistics on methodological grounds. Different years are used, little distinction is made between rural areas and small towns, the difference between big cities and large metro centers, if there is one, is never spelled out.

Still, the Journal seems broadly right when it talks about "prosperous cities" and "struggling small towns." Economics does seem to be at the root of the problem. The jobs are in the cities. If rural America is to prosper, it needs more employment opportunities.

Extending broadband internet to more of the countryside would be a big help. According to a new report by a federal task force headed by agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue, 39% of the rural population lacked access to high-quality broadband in 2014 (http://tiny.cc/…). According to the report, "This e-connectivity gap not only prevents rural Americans from participating in the global marketplace but also limits urban Americans from accessing the innovations and products of rural America."

For rural areas and small towns to stop struggling, Washington needs to get beyond issuing reports and start delivering on oft-made promises to actually do something about rural broadband.

Urban Lehner can be reached at urbanize@gmail.com

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