The most important lesson from our State of the City poll may be how much urban, suburban, and rural Americans are concerned about the same things.
So, in the end, is the grass greener in cities, the suburbs or on the farm? Or is it turning brown everywhere?
For the past month, CityLab has reported results from the Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City poll, which explored how Americans living in urban, suburban, and rural areas rate their communities on all the key components of daily life, from education, transportation and safety to the environment and culture.
The survey’s results suggest that suburbs, the form of community that’s grown most over the past half century, retain many advantages. But the poll’s larger story may be how much urban, suburban, and rural Americans converge in how they view the direction in which their communities are heading—and how other distinctions, like race, education, and home ownership, now often mark deeper divides than geography.
The suburbs led both cities and rural areas on the survey’s closest thing to a summary question. Asked to rate the quality of life in their community, 45 percent of suburban residents replied “excellent,” and another 39 percent replied “good.” That was a more positive verdict than either rural residents (35 percent excellent, 43 percent good) or urbanites (33 percent excellent, 42 percent good) registered for their areas.
In several specific areas the survey tested, suburban residents also expressed the most satisfaction. Suburbanites were somewhat more likely than both urban and rural residents to express “a lot of confidence” in their local public schools and their local government. Suburbanites were slightly more likely than urban, and significantly more likely than rural, residents to describe the availability of good paying jobs in their neighborhood as excellent or good. The same pattern held when respondents were asked to judge the quality of local parks and recreation facilities. Suburbanites were also the most confident that their local utilities could keep the lights on and water running during severe weather.
The most conspicuous advantage for the suburbs came on one of their core historic selling points: affordable housing. Nearly half of suburbanites said it was “very” or “somewhat” easy to find affordable, high-quality housing in their neighborhoods; only about two-in-five urban or rural residents agreed.
But on several other measures, rural residents expressed the most satisfaction. While suburbanites (at 47 percent) were considerably more likely than urban residents (at 33 percent) to say they felt “very safe” when walking in their neighborhood at night, rural residents trumped both (with 54 percent). The pattern recurred on questions asking respondents about the quality of their air and water: suburbanites expressed more satisfaction than urban residents, but rural residents topped both. Not surprisingly, rural residents were much less likely than suburban or city people to describe traffic as a major problem in their communities.
Education presented a complex picture. Rural residents were the most likely to say that they believed local schools were adequately preparing young people for the job market if they did not attend college. Rural residents were also as likely as suburbanites—with both slightly more likely than urban respondents—to say that local schools were equipping young people to successfully perform college work. But people in rural communities were much less confident than their urban or suburban counterparts about the quality of post-secondary education and job training available nearby for young people or adults.
The most distinctive advantages for cities came on signature components of urban life. Urbanites were more likely than suburban or rural residents to describe the availability of high quality arts and cultural opportunities in their community as excellent or good. City dwellers were also more likely to express confidence in public transportation (and modestly more likely to say they don’t rely on a car to get to work).
But as much as these results revealed comparative advantages for each region, the larger story from the poll may be how closely Americans’ attitudes converge across geographic lines in expressing concern about the obstacles facing their communities.
For instance, while suburbanites displayed more faith than urban or rural residents in their local public schools, only about one-third of each group expressed “a lot” of confidence in those institutions. And while suburbanites registered slightly more faith than urban or rural residents in their local government, the larger message may be that fewer than one-fourth in each group expressed “a lot” of confidence.
Other questions found a similar pattern. The three groups converged with only 31 percent of urban, 30 percent of suburban and 27 percent of rural residents saying the quality of life in their community has improved since they’ve lived there. Only about one-in-four urban and suburban residents, and just one-in-seven rural residents, say job opportunities have improved in their area over the past year. (It’s worth recalling that judgment is starting from a low base, with only about one-in-three urban or suburban, and one-in-four rural, residents describing job opportunities in their community as excellent or good.)
Schools, as noted above, received roughly the same equivocal verdict in all three places: in cities, suburbs, and rural places alike the share of residents who believe local classrooms are effectively preparing neighborhood children for college work is down since 2012. Less than half of adults in all three communities believe that schools are preparing local children to enter the workforce if they choose not to attend college.
Other measures also bent mostly toward concern. Nearly half of respondents in all three community types expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of their local roads and bridges. In both cities and rural areas, the share of residents who describe it as difficult to find affordable housing to buy or rent exceeded those who view it as easy; suburbanites, only slightly more optimistic, split about in half on those questions. On crime, the share of residents in all three communities who said they felt very safe walking in their community is down from a decade ago (even though crime rates have fallen).
Perhaps most significantly, nearly half of urban residents, about two-fifths of rural residents, and over one-third of suburbanites said they only earn enough money either to “just meet basic expenses” or “don’t even have enough to meet basic expenses.” That’s a combined 41 percent of the entire sample who said they are, at best, scraping by; only 32 percent overall say they are living comfortably. (The remaining 26 percent said they can meet “basic expenses with a little left over for extras.”)
Characteristics beyond place, of course, also shape satisfaction levels in the poll. On most questions, urban and non-urban whites express more optimism than non-whites who live in the same place. (To generate a sample large enough to compare subgroups like whites and non-whites, the survey combines suburban and rural residents into one “non-urban” group). Both urban and non-urban whites affirm more confidence than their non-white counterparts in local police, rate their local job climate more positively, and are more likely to say they receive good value for their tax dollars. The same racial divide held true when respondents were asked about whether the air they breathe is clean, whether they feel safe walking in their community at night, and whether their financial situation is comfortable.
College graduates, whether living in cities or not, also routinely register more optimistic judgments on many questions than those without degrees. Likewise, urban and non-urban homeowners consistently display more satisfaction than renters: both in and out of cities, more than twice as many homeowners as renters describe their financial situation as comfortable. Urban homeowners are twice as likely as renters to describe their community’s overall quality of life as excellent; in non-urban communities, homeowners are 50 percent more likely than renters to label their area as excellent.
Yet even so, whether living in cities, suburbs, or rural areas, only a combined 38 percent of whites, 40 percent of homeowners and 45 percent of college graduates say they are living comfortably. Less than one-in-five in each group express a great deal of confidence in their local government; for state government that number drops in each case to less than one-in-six. Even among these relatively more satisfied groups, in other words, discontent remains substantial.
Geography, along with race, age, and religious devotion, has become one of American politics’ central fault lines. Across the country, Democrats now consistently run best in urbanized centers and Republicans almost universally improve their performance the further they move from the city core. On issues from gay marriage to gun control, to questions about the role of government, the split between urban and rural Americans remains a chasm. But the biggest message from the unique exploration of attitudes in the Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City poll may be that for all their differences, cities, suburbs, and rural communities are united in unease about the trajectory of American life.
The Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,656 U.S. adults by telephone between July 23 and August 4. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
Now that our series is complete, we're releasing the full raw data sets to make them available to readers for their own analysis.
You can download a PDF version and view the full crosstabs for our raw data below.
For SPSS or ASCII versions, you can download the relevant files here.