Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new Pew Research Center survey shows where the geographical divide is overstated.
It’s been more than a year since Donald Trump was elected president, and the “rural-urban divide” is frequently cited as one of the big reasons for his win.
But discussions often simplify the realities of America’s rural areas, cities, and suburbs, reducing these communities to monoliths with few overlapping experiences or attitudes. The findings of a new survey by the Pew Research Center complicate that narrative—showing that while rural, urban, and suburban communities have unique problems, they have surprising, perhaps often overlooked, similarities.
"Yes, there are deep divides,” said Kim Parker, Director of Social Trends Research at Pew. “But when it comes to the basic issues of life, there's a lot that Americans across communities agree on.”
There are more similarities than we may have believed
How various communities across the American landscape imagine themselves, their ties to their homes, and their most urgent problems is pretty similar, the survey findings show. Some highlights follow:
Rural and urban America face some of the same local concerns
In recent years, the opioid epidemic has devastated a number of white, rural communities. But data shows that it is urban, black populations that have seen the steepest increases in overdose deaths. This epidemic is a shared challenge, and the findings of the Pew survey demonstrate that. In it, similar shares of rural (50 percent) and urban (46 percent) respondents report drug addiction being one of the biggest problems facing their communities.
Everyone pretty much agrees rural areas could use more help
About 71 percent of rural residents believe they get the short end of the stick as far as federal aid is concerned. But perhaps surprisingly, significant shares of suburban (61 percent) and urban residents (57 percent) agreed.
On the other hand, fewer than half of those living in cities said city residents received less than they deserve from the federal government; and only about a third of suburban and rural respondents agreed.
They have similarly iffy connections to home
Only one in seven Americans reports feeling a strong attachment to their local community, and that share is the same across cities, suburbs, and rural communities.
No one actually talks to their neighbors
Turns out it’s not true that country folks are more neighborly. The Pew survey finds that while it’s true that rural residents are more likely than urban ones to know who their neighbors are, they aren’t really more likely to chat them up.
Both rural and urban communities feel misunderstood
Urban and rural residents both believe that outsiders regard them negatively. Suburbanites, on the other hand, feel they enjoy a positive image in society.
Rural and urban residents both agree … that they disagree
When it comes to what they disagree on, rural and urban Americans are roughly on the same page. Around 60 percent of rural respondents say that their values do not align with the urban residents, and 53 percent of urban ones feel the same of their rural counterparts.
The popular theory that some of these differences in views stem from “economic anxiety” in smaller, more rural towns has been heavily challenged in the aftermath of the election. Economically, the picture is complicated. It’s true that rural populations have the lowest earnings—but they’re also living in the cheapest areas across the country. And in terms of poverty, it’s actually the suburbs that have seen the steepest increases: 51 percent since 2000, compared to 31 percent in urban and 23 percent in rural areas.
Of course, the perception of relative deprivation may still persist in these spaces, but recent research suggests that perhaps anti-immigrant sentiment and support for Trump are tied to factors beyond pure economics: They may have more to do with lack of exposure to diversity and fear of lost status because of the changing face of the country.