• Is “Rural Decline” Just a Statistical Artifact?

    Maybe rural America is doing OK after all.Kevin Drum

    By coincidence, the Washington Post ran a piece yesterday making the same case that I did this morning: rural areas aren’t really in economic decline. The argument presented by Andrew Van Dam is simple and intriguing.

    It has to do with the way the Census Bureau defines rural. Basically, it doesn’t. It defines urban, and then labels everything left over as rural. And that’s a problem: their definition of urban is any city (plus its surrounding areas) with a population of 50,000 or more. Regardless of whether you think this is a good definition, you can see one big problem with it: any rural area eventually gets reclassified as urban if it’s successful and growing. By definition, the only areas left over are those that are declining or growing slowly, and those are the ones we classify as rural.

    Van Dam makes the case that if we applied the Census definition to the country in 1950 and then tracked all the areas defined as rural in 1950, it turns out that rural America is doing fine. But in real life, we reclassify these areas every few years and move the best performers into the urban column. Here’s what that looks like:

    By 2018, we had reclassified so much of America that the population of “rural” America had barely grown at all because the only places left were the slowest-growing bits:

    In a way, rural areas serve as urban America’s farm team: All their most promising prospects get called up to the big leagues, leaving the low-density margins populated by an ever-shrinking pool of those who couldn’t qualify….[But] the character of a place doesn’t necessarily change the moment a city crosses the 50,000-resident mark.

    ….About 6 in 10 U.S. adults who consider themselves “rural” live in an area classified as metropolitan by standards similar to those used above, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in 2017. And 3 in 4 of the adults who say they live in a “small town”? They’re also in a metro area.

    Bottom line: the “decline” of rural America is mostly a statistical artifact. We keep redefining rural to exclude any successful rural areas, and by now the only rural places left are the ones that have been persistently bad performers for the past 70 years. But if “persistently bad performer for the past 70 years” is your definition of rural, it’s merely a tautology to say that rural areas are performing badly.

  • Survey Suggests That White Racial Resentment Is Easing

    A few months ago I wrote a piece for the magazine suggesting that white racial resentment had steadily increased during Barack Obama’s presidency as a reaction against eight years of a black president. But when Obama left, the bubble burst and racial resentment returned to its usual levels. For this reason, Democrats have no reason to fear that a focus on things like immigration reform or racial justice will hurt them electorally in 2020.

    A new study confirms this—sort of. It uses results from a panel survey that re-interviews the same people periodically. Here are the results:

    What the authors find is that racial resentment stayed roughly steady during Obama’s presidency and then plummeted afterward. This is different from my theory but it has the same basic shape: a dam broke after the 2016 election and racial resentment declined compared to Obama’s time in office.

    This is one smallish survey, so as usual I’d caution against taking it too seriously. But it matches a lot of other evidence that “the alienation of the white working class from the party associated with racial diversity was caused by the simple presence of a black man in the White House.” Now that he’s gone, that alienation is easing.

  • Semi-Raw Data: Household Income in Urban and Rural Areas

    I’m continuing to poke into the urban-rural divide, and there are several ways to come at it. Here’s one:

    • Choose ten representative rural counties.
    • Choose ten big cities.
    • Compare median household income over time.

    There’s no way to do this that’s perfect, but as a first cut to get a flavor of things, I created a list of ten urban counties, ten rural counties, and ten very rural counties. (See Postscript for details.) The Census Bureau has estimates of county-level median income since 1989, and I took the average of each list for each year. Here are the results:

    Likewise, the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the unemployment rate by county. Using the same methodology, here it is:

    Roughly speaking, rural income has grown slightly more than urban income while rural unemployment averages slightly higher than urban unemployment. Absolute income is higher in cities, of course, but given the higher cost of living in cities I’d guess that the median standard of living is roughly comparable between urban and rural areas.

    Now, urban counties obviously have a much higher top end compared to rural counties. The top 10 percent of Los Angeles is probably substantially richer than the top 10 percent in any of the rural counties. On the other hand, urban areas also have a higher poverty rate. Overall, I suspect these averages are fairly representative of what we normally think of as rural and urban, and it suggests that average economic conditions between the two aren’t as different as we often make them out to be.

    POSTSCRIPT: There are a surprising number of definitions of rural and urban, but the simplest and most intuitive is based on population density. So I got a list of counties by population density and chose the ten southern and midwestern counties that were closest to a density of 100 per square mile (but allowing only one county per state to maintain a bit of diversity). That forces a random selection, and a density of 100/sqmi is rural but not Deliverance rural, moderate income but not poor. I repeated this for a density of 30 per square mile to get ten very rural counties. For the urban income figures, I chose the counties containing America’s ten biggest cities, once again allowing only one city per state.

    Here are the places I used for my averages. For the urban series, I used income figures for the counties containing these cities:

    • Brooklyn, NY
    • Los Angeles, CA
    • Chicago, IL
    • Houston, TX
    • Phoenix, AZ
    • Philadelphia, PA
    • Columbus, OH
    • Charlotte, NC
    • Indianapolis, IN

    The ten rural counties are:

    • Whitley County, IN
    • Pottawattamie County, IA
    • Lamar County, GA
    • Rapides Parish, LA
    • Logan County, OH
    • Floyd County, KY
    • Person County, NC
    • Rhea County, TN
    • Pike County, MS
    • Taylor County, WV

    And the ten very rural counties are:

    • Schley County, GA
    • Lawrence County, MS
    • Sevier County, AR
    • Edwards County, IL
    • Graham County, NC
    • Livingston County, KY
    • De Soto Parish, LA
    • Winneshiek County, IA
    • DeKalb County, MO
    • Martin County, IN
  • Friday Cat Blogging – 24 May 2019

    The grass outside our house has been growing tall, and for some reason it hasn’t been mowed for a couple of weeks. Naturally the cats love it. Hilbert in particular likes to stalk through it and then hunt down blades of grass to eat. He is a mighty hunter indeed.

    Anyway, this turns out to be your lucky day. I took pictures, of course, and told Marian she had to decide between the two finalists. She couldn’t, so today you get two cat blogging pictures. In return, Hilbert would like you to please donate to our Corruption Project if you haven’t already done so. Just don’t dip into the tuna money to do it.

    Click here to donate.

  • Just How Badly Is Rural America Doing? It’s Complicated.

    In the New York Times, Will Wilkinson writes about the steadily worsening problems with rural and small-town America:

    Small towns and rural areas, along with some Rust Belt metros, are falling ever further behind booming urban dynamos — leaving many heavily Republican regions in a deepening morass of economic deterioration, joblessness, substance abuse and declining life expectancy…..Yet the travails of America’s struggling red regions, and practical ideas about might be done to alleviate them, are barely mentioned in right-leaning policy circles….Worse, the Republican Party under Mr. Trump has blundered into a positively anti-rural economic agenda, leaving the soybean fields littered with $20 bills for enterprising Democratic presidential hopefuls to pick up.

    ….For decades, poorer areas had been converging economically with wealthier ones, but that stalled in the early 1980s….Since then, inequalities in regional productivity and living standards have been widening. The declining capacity of smaller towns and cities to bounce back from job loss — whether because of recession, automation or offshoring — means that the regional economic gap grows wider with every downturn, “disruptive” technological advance or uptick in global economic integration.

    What’s weird about this is that I believe every word of it. I don’t have any real doubt that the economic divide between rural and urban America is getting worse and worse.

    And yet . . . you can probably guess what’s coming next, can’t you? When I look for actual evidence of this, I have a hard time finding it. I wrote yesterday about farms and soybeans, for example, and found little to be worried about despite all the doomsday headlines. In the case of rural vs. urban America, the simplest and most obvious comparison is median income, but I can’t even find a time series of this. Hell, it’s hard to even find a decent definition of “rural,” let alone hard data. For example, here are the conclusions of two recent census reports (here and here):

    In the first chart, it looks like rural and urban household income is actually pretty similar. But in the second chart, “mostly rural” income is more than 20 percent lower than “mostly urban” income. The difference is that the first chart is an average of actual households, while the second chart looks at county averages. Both have their value. But which is a better look at how rural folks are really doing? And how has this changed over time?

    It’s barely possible that I could build a time series myself, and I tried last night. Once again, though, I failed utterly to figure out how to use the online tools to extract data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Maybe I’ll try again this weekend. But even if I figure it out, it’s hard to know how representative it would be of “rural” the way most of us think about it. A rural family in Kent, Connecticut, for example, is way different from a rural family in Harlan County, Kentucky.

    There are other approaches to this, however, and I’ll cogitate over them this weekend.

  • Yesterday’s Trump Roundup Today

    Ting Shen/Xinhua via ZUMA

    Just catching up on some Trump news I didn’t get around to yesterday:

    • Trump gave William Barr total authority to declassify and release anything he wants regarding the Russia investigation. This is a transparent attempt to allow Barr to cherry pick items and release them out of context, knowing that the press will give them big play even though they know they’re being played. This was the Republican strategy during the Benghazi and email investigations, and it worked great.
    • The Washington Post reports that Trump is obsessed with giving a contract to build his wall to a big-time Republican donor:

      President Trump has personally and repeatedly urged the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to award a border wall contract to a North Dakota construction firm whose top executive is a GOP donor and frequent guest on Fox News, according to four administration officials….[Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps] was summoned to the White House again Thursday, after the president’s aides told Pentagon officials — including Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s chief of staff — that the president wanted to discuss the border barrier. According to an administration official with knowledge of the Oval Office meeting, Trump immediately brought up Fisher, a company that sued the U.S. government last month after the Army Corps did not accept its bid to install barriers along the southern border, a contract potentially worth billions of dollars.

      The weird thing is that this might not be corrupt in the usual meaning of the word. Apparently Fisher’s CEO is a sort of Trump-esque blowhard who goes on conservative radio and TV to claim that he has fabulous new technology that would allow him to build 200 miles of the wall in less than a year. Trump is totally enamored of this claim, even though the Army Corps of Engineers apparently isn’t.

    • A doctored video was released that seemed to show Nancy Pelosi slurring her words like a drunk while she addressed a crowd. It was immediately referenced on Fox News, of course, even though it was obviously a fake. So far Donald Trump hasn’t retweeted it, but give him time.
    • And did I mention that Trump held a press conference yesterday in which he called on various staffers to confirm for the cameras that he had been totally calm in his meeting with Pelosi earlier in the day? I did, didn’t I? Still, it’s worth mentioning again: Trump was totally calm. He did not storm out of the meeting like a child because Pelosi had said something mean about him. Capiche? He was totally, extremely, exceptionally, strikingly calm. Really, really calm. CALM, dammit. Don’t you guys listen?
  • Tires Sure Are Cheap These Days

    A few weeks ago Elizabeth Warren asked her audience, “Have you seen what it costs to put a new set of tires on your car?” As it happens, I got new tires today, and the answer is $600 for the extremely average passenger tires I need for my Mazda 3. That seemed like a lot! But naturally that got me wondering: Is that a lot? It turns out the answer is a resounding no. The cost of tires has plummeted over the past 50 years:

    There are two things going on here. First, adjusted for inflation, the cost of tires is about half what it was in 1968. Second, tires last about twice as long as they used to: 40,000 miles vs. 20,000 miles. When you put those two things together, we pay about one-quarter as much for tires over the course of 40,000 miles as our parents did during the Summer of Love. What’s more, modern radial tires are safer than old tires; they handle better than old tires; and they’re less prone to punctures than old tires. How about that?

  • Julian Assange Indicted for Publishing US Secrets

    Rob Pinney/London News Pictures via ZUMA

    Here’s the latest on Julian Assange:

    Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks leader, has been indicted on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act for his role in obtaining and publishing secret military and diplomatic documents in 2010, the Justice Department announced on Thursday — a novel case that raises profound First Amendment issues.

    ….The New York Times, among many other news organizations, obtained precisely the same archives of documents from WikiLeaks, without authorization from the government — the act that most of the charges addressed….Barry J. Pollack, a lawyer for Mr. Assange, said his client was being charged with a crime “for encouraging sources to provide him truthful information and for publishing that information.” That dramatic step, he said, removed the “fig leaf” that the case about his client was only about hacking.

    ….The Obama administration had also weighed charging Mr. Assange, but rejected that step out of fears that it would chill investigative journalism and could be struck down as unconstitutional.

    Obama, Trump, whatevs. They’re both just establishment shills of the security state. Not a dime’s worth of difference between them.

    Oh wait.

  • How Are We Doing This Year on the $400 Expense Question?

    The Washington Post gets us up to speed on the Fed’s latest report about the wellbeing of American households:

    Are Americans benefiting from the strong economy — aside from the rich? A Fed report raises questions.

    ….Almost four in 10 people (39 percent) said they wouldn’t be able to scrape together the cash to meet a $400 emergency expense.

    Just to save everybody some trouble next year, here’s how that question has been answered since the Fed started asking it:

    So the answer is: yes, the non-rich have benefited from the strong economy. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they haven’t benefited nearly as much as they should have: