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Culture, More Than Economics, Divides Rural and Urban America

Two thirds of rural Americans say people in big cities hold values that are different than theirs, and nearly half of urban Americans say the same thing — that rural values are different than theirs, said the Washington Post. “The political divide between rural and urban Americans is more cultural than it is economic, rooted in rural residents’ deep misgivings about the nation’s rapidly changing demographics, their sense that Christianity is under siege, and their perception that the federal government caters most to the needs of people in big cities.”

The Post based its summary on a survey of 1,700 Americans conducted in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation. Urban–rural disagreements “ultimately center on fairness: who wins and loses in the new American economy, who deserves the most help in society, and whether the federal government shows preferential treatment to certain types of people. President Trump’s contentious, anti-immigrant rhetoric, for example, touched on many of the frustrations felt most acutely by rural Americans,” said the Post.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton rolled up large margins in cities, but rural voters backed Trump in landslide numbers, and were key to his victory. Rural America has higher poverty rates and has recovered more slowly from the 2008–09 recession than cities, but the difference between the regions is more than economic, said the Post. “Most rural residents” expect their local economy will benefit from Trump’s agenda of infrastructure projects, new trade deals, deregulation, lower taxes, and a crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Still, the largest fissures are “misgivings about the country’s changing demographics and resentment about perceived biases in federal assistance, according to the poll.” The Post said rural Americans were three times as likely as urban residents to say immigrants are a burden; they are also more likely to say federal benefits go to people abusing the system.

“Rural Americans also are broadly skeptical that the federal government is fair or effective at improving people’s economic situations. More than 60% say federal efforts to improve living standards either make things worse or have little impact,” said the Post. “And those views appear to feed the rural–urban divide: A 56% majority of rural residents says the federal government does more to help people living in and around large cities, while 37% feel they treat both urban and rural areas equally.”

Rural sentiment was not monolithic, said the Post. Political affiliation was a better indicator of views on immigration than where respondents to the poll lived. Rural Americans are evenly splint on whether Trump respects them but are more likely, by 54% to 40%, to approve of his job performance. “There are also significant differences in small-town America between whites and minorities,” said the newspaper.

The poll’s findings were similar to those of Katherine Cramer’s, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, whose research over the past decade found alienation and resentment in rural Wisconsin. Cramer’s work was sparked by the rise of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, but she saw parallels in how Trump tapped into the belief that rural areas did not get a fair share of attention, state resources, and respect, said Minnesota Public Radio. “It’s a recipe for divisive messages, right? It’s ready and waiting for someone to tap into and say, ‘You’re right, those people don’t deserve it and you do,’ ” Cramer said in an April 10 speech at the University of Minnesota.

The 26-page summary of the poll and its findings is available here.

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