CHICAGO, July 29, 2013 — For conservative entertainers who earning a living selling gold to aging white people, Detroit’s bankruptcy is a shining gift. Superficially, the story confirms every bias on which their careers depend while carrying that subtle but unmistakable aroma of racial schadenfreude. The city’s failure reinforces for them the superiority of the rural, “pro-America areas of this great nation” over those frightening, dangerous cities full of “takers.”
Gloating over Detroit masks two important warnings for conservatives. First, the bankruptcy is a glaring reminder of what can happen when entrenched institutions resist the pressure to adapt. That should resonate with Republicans, but so far there is little sign of concern.
Second, the forces that overwhelmed liberal Detroit have been wreaking havoc on the mostly Republican countryside for decades. Conservative fantasies of urban decline are a relic of the 70’s, a symbol of the GOP’s frustrating disconnect from the modern world. For all the challenges facing America’s big cities, our countryside is in far worse condition. Republicans do not seem terribly concerned about the damage in their own backyards.
Of the 100 US counties with the highest rates of child poverty, 95 of them are rural. By an interesting coincidence, 92 of them are in states Romney won in 2012. In a list of the 100 poorest counties in America is there is not a single northern urban area.
Trenton, Newark, and Oakland struggle with poverty, but they also have access to enormous infrastructure and capital. For all the challenges facing the metropolitan poor, they enjoy far greater opportunities to advance themselves.
Rural counties in recent decades are seeing rising inequality even while their own relative income lags farther and farther behind urban areas. When right-wing blogs blather on about “government dependence,” they evoke images of impoverished urban masses trapped in a cycle of poverty. They consistently fail to identify the demographic most thoroughly dependent on government: inhabitants of the deep red rural counties.
Rural residents depend on food stamps (SNAP) at almost a 50 percent higher rate than city-dwellers. Rural counties rank near the top in nearly every category of welfare use. A shocking 22 percent of the residents of Detroit’s Wayne County receive food stamps. However, Texas has four counties in which more than a third of the residents use the program. Kentucky has five. Mississippi has seven. By comparison, 17 percent of D.C. residents and 15 percent of the population of Chicago’s Cook County receive food stamps.
Safety net spending is only the tip of the “taker” iceberg. The vast majority of America’s private commercial activity is centered on the cities. The countryside depends on government for nearly all of its economic survival.
Billions of dollars in annual agriculture subsidies keep rural farmers and ranchers in business either directly or through broader market support. Agriculture programs take money earned disproportionately from urban areas, which tend to vote for Democrats, and redistribute it to a countryside dominated by Republicans.
The redistribution continues beyond farm subsidies. Though rates of direct government employment are similar in urban and rural areas, rural communities are often disproportionately dependent on government institutions, from schools and police up to military bases, universities, prisons and other public facilities.
Rural counties now experience markedly higher unemployment than the cities. Rising rural unemployment is all the more remarkable when you consider how much of the rural economy is based on traditionally stable government jobs. Farm production, the anchor of rural life, now makes up only 1 percent of U.S. economic output and about 5 percent of rural employment.
Perhaps there was a time when rural communities could congratulate themselves for cultivating a stronger sense of moral values, but those days are gone. Rural counties have higher rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, domestic violence and divorce. Rural residents are falling farther and farther behind in education and were hit much harder by the job losses from the financial collapse.
Crime is generally regarded as an urban phenomenon and the characterization makes sense. It is a pure physical challenge to commit a crime in an isolated environment. Unless you’re that horse guy, the countryside ought to be a very poor environment for criminals.
It is no surprise then that crime rates are higher in the cities. However, our supposedly terrifying city environments have experienced a remarkable, decades-long decline in their crime rates. Meanwhile, rural areas have largely missed this decline, in many cases experiencing the opposite.
As you might expect, the countryside is emptying. Global populations have been shifting toward cities since the dawn of capitalism, but that transition has reached a remarkable threshold in the U.S. For the first time ever, our overall rural population has begun to decline in absolute numbers, not just in proportion to the cities. And for the first time in decades, central cities over the past few years have begun to see their populations growing faster than the suburbs.
Detroit’s bankruptcy is a story of accelerating economic transformation and the strain it is placing on rigid economic and political institutions. A more dynamic economy requires a greater willingness to adapt. Detroit may be in trouble, but a bankruptcy and political reorganization could very well turn its fortunes. The same cannot be said for the dying countryside on which the GOP has staked its future.
Irresistible gloating over the troubles of a liberal basket-case threatens to mask a vital warning. For twenty years Republicans have ignored urban issues, abandoning America’s richest, fastest growing, most dynamic environments to the Democrats. For the first time since the two parties took shape, there is not a single Republican mayor in America’s ten largest cities.
The nation’s political climate is changing. The lesson of Detroit is that adaption is the key to survival. Republicans may gloat over Detroit’s failure, but we ignore the city’s lessons at our own peril.
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