Though we often associate crime and poverty with America’s inner cities, a recent analysis by The Wall Street Journal has shown that America’s urban-rural divide has left “sparsely populated counties” as the most desolate areas in the country.
What does “inner city” even mean?
“Inner city” became a commonly used phrase around the 1980s, when the United States’ urban areas were troubled epicenters of drugs and violent crimes. From the 1980s to the mid 1990s, America’s big cities had the highest concentration of divorced people and the highest rates of teenage births and deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The phrase by definition simply means the central area of a major city. The meaning of inner city evolved over time, implying that the problems of “inner cities” were self-inflicted. Inner cities were actually disadvantaged because of decades of biased policies and various forms of discrimination, which forced urban areas to be places of concentrated poverty.
“Inner city” became synonymous with the phrases “poverty” and “black America,” implying that those three terms were inherently codependent and doomed.
Despite the common negative connotation that has stuck to the phrase “inner city,” many inner city areas have actually been thriving.
What has changed?
Over the last two decades, well-being in urban areas has increased, while well-being in rural areas has drastically declined.
Rural America was largely built upon jobs in manufacturing and agriculture, jobs that are now disappearing. This lack of jobs has led to many rural issues, leaving those living in small towns without the same resources or opportunities as those living in urban cities.
People often follow jobs, so younger, college-educated people have inevitably migrated to more urban areas. This has left rural areas with older, less-educated populations. This demographic has become increasingly neglected in recent decades.
In The Wall Street Journal’s analysis, they measured socioeconomic well-being through poverty, college degrees, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation.
Comparing rural areas with big cities, suburbs, and medium or small metro areas, rural counties now rank the worst out of all four major population groupings, while urban areas rank the best.
Federal data from 2013 shows that in the majority of sparsely populated U.S. counties, more people died that year than were born, which hadn’t happened since the creation of universal birth registration in the 1930s.
The wage gap between workers in urban and rural areas has also been expanding since the 2007-09 recession; the average wage is now one-third higher in urban areas than in less-populated places.
Along with the wage disparity, one-third of adults in urban areas hold a college degree, which is nearly double the amount in rural counties, according to the U.S. Census.
Opioid abuse has been driving up the crime rate in rural areas, and the opioid epidemic has been worsened by a lack of accessible treatment.
Nearly 79 rural hospitals have shut down since 2010, leaving many rural residents with irregular care, increasing sickness in these areas.
Takeaway: The rural-urban divide and our political landscape
This inequity has caused political tensions, leading to rural resentment in many small towns. As seen in the 2016 presidential election, rural districts voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, who promised to revive forgotten towns.
In a National Public Radio piece on rural resentment, Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, explained why many rural voters voted for Trump.
“They feel like their communities are dying, and they perceive that all that stuff — the young people, the money, the livelihood — is going somewhere, and it’s going to the cities,” she said.
This feeling of neglect stems from the fact that rural areas and cities did, in fact, swap in terms of well-being and poverty.
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