Stop Overlooking the Richness of Rural Life


From questions of upward mobility and opportunity to concerns about access to health care and education, rural America clearly isn’t perfect. But while many tout the virtues of cities vis-à-vis the rural heartland, the stark reality is that neither spatial form is a panacea; each has its qualities along with numerous flaws. As such, I have spent considerable time writing about the often overlooked similarities between urban and rural America and attempted to accentuate the many merits of the heartland where community remains strong and civic outside our nation’s cities. So, when the New York Times published a lengthy op-ed by Monica Potts entitled The Land of Self Defeat about the troubles of rural America, my interest was piqued.

In her piece, Potts talks about returning home to rural Van Buren County, Arkansas and ruminates about what rural life is like in the era of Donald Trump. She notes that, “…people here think life here has taken a turn for the worse” and highlights the usual rural talking points including economic decline, the religious intensity of her neighbors, and the various attitudes about immigration and government that shape the region’s support for President Trump.

I paused, however, when Potts took her ideas about rural America further. Potts states that she has witnessed a world where individuals have turned away from community. She argues that, “….many here seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them…and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families…. It’s an attitude that is against…helping your neighbor.”

If true, this sort of diminution of community is a truly troubling description of contemporary rural community life.

I cannot dispute the local details of her sobering story and the particular circumstances in Van Buren county but Potts’ more general ideas about rural life are largely impressionistic and fortunately do not generally hold up well to empirical scrutiny at all.

AEI’s new Survey on Community and Society along with NORC’s General Social Survey (GSS), data explicitly looks various facets of rural life from ideological leanings to engagement with neighbors in one’s community and results are not nearly as negative as the conclusions presented in the New York Times.

In fact, those who live in rural America - 12% of the GSS sample and 14% of the AEI sample and are individuals who explicitly live outside large metropolitan statistical areas and their suburban areas as well as urban towns and small cities - are not only ideologically diverse but also possess higher levels of social capital and connections with their neighbors than urban dwellers and are generally quite pleased with their local governmental institutions.

To elaborate, Potts writes that that the, “people [who are] left in rural areas are more and more conservative” today. The problem with such a statement is that rural areas are not as conservative as they often appear. Some rural areas may have partisan machines and active political groups that project power and influence electoral outcomes, but there’s far more ideological diversity in rural America than commonly presumed.

The GSS shows that between 2010 and 2018, 38% of rural Americans were conservative, a broad definition which includes the slightly conservative to extremely conservative. Concurrently, 22% of rural Americans identified as liberal to some degree and the plurality – 41% - considered themselves moderate. This is not even close to a conservative majority or some monolithic right-wing political culture. No ideological group is even close to the “political landslide” benchmark; a margin of 20 percentage points or more.

Placing these recent figures in historical context, the ideological breakdown of today is marginally more conservative but not all that different from five decades earlier. In the 1970s, GSS data revealed that 23% of rural Americans identified as liberal compared to 33% conservative with the lion’s share remaining moderate at 45%. Things did not change much in the 1990s, although the number of conservatives did increase a bit to 38% with liberals down to 21%. Nonetheless, 41% of rural Americans were comfortably moderate. The survey data on ideological preferences simply do not support the conclusion that rural areas have become appreciably more conservative over time.

Turning to Potts’ devastating statements about neighborhood social capital in decline, the data does not generally support claims that rural America has become anomic and anti-social.

The AEI Community and Society survey, for example, asks about how willing Americans are to help their neighbors in a variety of tasks in the abstract. The data reveals that 81% of those in rural areas are very or fairly likely to help people in their area. This happens to be 11 points higher than the reported figure in cities and 6 points higher than the figure in suburbs.

Relatedly, the AEI survey probes balancing one’s personal needs against the larger whole by offering the scenario: Now please think about the local community where you live. If public officials asked everyone to conserve water or electricity because of some emergency, how likely is it that people in your community would cooperate? If rural Americans were turning inward and becoming selfish, I find it hard to accept that 74% believe that those in their community would cooperate –a huge figure and slightly higher than the 68% for urban areas.

Further similar examples of rural Americans being civic and engaged with their communities in the AEI survey include the fact that rural Americans are more likely to get along with their neighbors than those in urban areas. Moreover, when asked if one’s neighbors provide a sense of community, 26% of rural Americans state that their neighbors provide a strong sense of community and another 47% provide a sense of community; only 23% of rural Americans say that they feel no sense of community from their neighbors. So, almost three-quarters of rural Americans believe that those around them in their communities do provide a sense of community. These high levels of rural connection are comparable to urban areas which are at 70% and make Potts’ claim that civil society in rural community is close to gone quite suspect.

Finally, even with the various problems present in rural America, the data makes it clear those who reside there are still quite satisfied with the direction of their communities.

More specifically, Americans are unquestionably negative about the direction of the country as a whole at the moment and levels of satisfaction have dropped considerably over the past two decades. The AEI survey has two similar measures which ask how satisfied respondents are with the way things are going in both their local communities and in the country as a whole. Unsurprisingly, results are quite negative for the direction of the country with only 49% of rural Americans being satisfied with the direction of the country. In contrast, when asked about one’s local community today, the level of rural satisfaction jumps 71% which is not only a significant difference from the national picture but is also slightly higher than the local levels of satisfaction for urban dwellers which comes in at 66%. The is real local optimism in the heartland.

Of course, survey data is imperfect and there are surely areas around the country that are turning inward and suffering real social capital declines. But Potts’ narrative about rural America may not be accurate and seems to be more in service of a progressive urban narrative than reality. Rural America is not nearly as conservative as many often believe it to be and those in the heartland maintain levels of civic engagement higher than their urban counterparts. Rural Americans are also satisfied with how things are going in their local communities. Rather than denigrate a vast geography, we should focus instead on what makes America truly great: communities and neighborhoods in both rural and urban areas that are willing to help one another and value those around them.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photo credit: via Flickr.