The political divide between rural and urban America 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, according to a wide-ranging poll that examines cultural attitudes across the United States.
The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey of nearly 1,700 Americans – including more than 1,000 adults living in rural areas and small towns – finds deep-seated kinship in rural America, coupled with a stark sense of estrangement from people who live in urban areas. Nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from those of people who live in big cities, including about 4 in 10 who say their values are “very different.”
That divide is felt more extensively in rural America than in cities: About half of urban residents say their values differ from rural people, with less than 20 percent of urbanites saying rural values are “very different.”
Alongside a strong rural social identity, the survey shows that disagreements between rural and urban America 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 Donald Trump’s contentious, anti-immigrant rhetoric, for example, touched on many of the frustrations felt most acutely by rural Americans.
The Post-Kaiser survey focused on rural and small-town areas that are home to nearly one-quarter of the U.S. population. These range from counties that fall outside metropolitan areas such as Brunswick, Virginia (population 16,243), to counties near population centers with up to 250,000 residents such as Augusta, Virginia (population 74,997), close to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. Urban residents live in counties that are part of major cities with populations of at least 1 million, while suburban counties include all those in between.
The results highlight the growing political divisions between rural and urban Americans. While urban counties favored Hillary Clinton by 32 percentage points in the 2016 election, rural and small-town voters backed Trump by a 26-point margin, significantly wider than GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s 16 points four years earlier.
But popular explanations of the rural-urban divide appear to overstate the influence of declining economic outcomes in driving rural America’s support for Trump. The survey responses, along with follow-up interviews and focus groups in rural Ohio, bring into view a portrait of a split that is tied more to social identity than to economic experience.
“Being from a rural area, everyone looks out for each other,” said Ryan Lawson, who grew up in northern Wisconsin. “People, in my experience, in cities are not as compassionate toward their neighbor as people in rural parts.”
In the poll, rural Americans express widespread concerns about the lack of jobs in their communities. Two-thirds of rural residents rate local job opportunities as fair or poor, compared with about half of urban residents. Nearly 6 in 10 rural residents say they would encourage young people in their community to leave for more opportunity elsewhere.
Rural areas have experienced a weak recovery from the Great Recession, with the total number of jobs down 128,000 from pre-recession levels. Suburban and urban counties have each gained about 3 million jobs, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
The rural unemployment rate is only slightly higher than in cities, 5.3 percent vs. 4.8 percent. But rural areas have been affected by a shrinking workforce as people have left towns or stopped looking for work, while the workforce has grown in suburbs and cities.
Still, when asked about their personal situations, rural residents described financial experiences that largely mirror those of urban respondents. The share of people who report experiencing severe economic hardship is roughly equal in urban and rural America: About 1 in 5 say there was a time in the past year when they couldn’t pay their bills. Similarly, about 1 in 5 in both areas say they rely on the federal government at least a fair amount to get by.
The poverty rate is similar in both areas, 16 percent in cities and 17 percent in rural areas, according to analysis of Census Bureau data.
“There are signs everywhere saying ‘now hiring, now hiring,’ ” said Crystal Schafer, of Linesville, Pennsylvania, who voted for Trump, when asked how her local economy is doing. “Granted, it might pay $8.59 an hour, but the jobs are there.”
Rural Americans express far more concern about jobs in their communities, but the poll finds that those concerns have little connection to support for Trump, a frequent theory to explain his rise in 2016. Economic troubles also show little relation to the feeling that urban residents have different values.
Rural voters who lament their community’s job prospects report supporting Trump by 14 percentage points more than Clinton, but Trump’s support was about twice that margin – 30 points – among voters who say their community’s job opportunities are excellent or good. Trump also earned about the same level of support from those who say they don’t worry about paying their bills as those who couldn’t pay their bills at some point in the past year.
Most rural residents say they think key elements of Trump’s economic agenda would help their local economy. Large majorities of rural residents say infrastructure investments, better trade deals, a crackdown on undocumented immigrant workers, lower business taxes and deregulation are “very” or “somewhat” important to boosting jobs in their communities.
“I have a hopeful optimism that he’ll be successful in bringing back that strong American foundation, and part of that is a strong economy. And when you have a strong economy, that produces jobs and then more jobs in a never-ending circle,” said Matthew Wendt, a corrections officer and retired Marine from Ashtabula, Ohio.
Views on immigration, race
The largest fissures between Americans living in large cities and those in less-dense areas are rooted in misgivings about the country’s changing demographics and resentment about perceived biases in federal assistance, according to the poll.
Rural residents are nearly three times as likely (42 percent) as people in cities (16 percent) to say that immigrants are a burden on the country.
“They’re not paying taxes like Americans are. They’re getting stuff handed to them,” said Larry E. Redding, a retired canning factory employee in Arendtsville, Pennsylvania. “Free rent, and they’re driving better vehicles than I’m driving and everything else.”
The poll reveals that perceptions about abuse of government benefits often go hand in hand with views about race.
When asked which is more common – that government help tends to go to irresponsible people who do not deserve it or that it doesn’t reach people in need – rural Americans are more likely than others to say they think people are abusing the system. And across all areas, those who believe irresponsible people get undeserved government benefits are more likely than others to think that racial minorities receive unfair privileges.
In response to this poll question – “Which of these do you think is the bigger problem in this country: blacks and Hispanics losing out because of preferences for whites, or whites losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics?” – rural whites are 14 points less likely than urban whites to say they are more concerned about blacks and Hispanics losing out.
Rural Americans also are broadly skeptical that the federal government is fair or effective at improving people’s economic situations. More than 60 percent say federal efforts to improve living standards either make things worse or have little impact. And those views appear to feed the rural-urban divide: A 56 percent majority of rural residents says the federal government does more to help people living in and around large cities, while 37 percent feel they treat both urban and rural areas equally.
“The culture and the type of people you see, they’re different” in big cities, said Bethany Hanna, a homemaker in Saint Albans, West Virginia, who said she visits urban areas on missions with her church. “It tends to be the type of people who are getting more assistance. . . . And the way you hear people talking, the viewpoints that they have on certain matters, it leans toward a pretty liberal opinion. Some of it’s an entitlement thing. They say ‘that’s not fair,’ or ‘I deserve this,’ that kind of thing.”
That sense of division is closely connected to the belief among rural Americans that Christian values are under siege. Nearly 6 in 10 people in rural areas say Christian values are under attack, compared with just over half of suburbanites and fewer than half of urbanites. When personal politics is taken into account, the divide among rural residents is even larger: 78 percent of rural Republicans say Christian values are under attack, while 45 percent of rural Democrats do.
Divided rural communities
Still, the poll results show that rural America is far from a monolith. Views about immigrants, for example, are more closely tied to respondents’ party affiliations than to where they lived.
Joseph Cloward, 27, a high school teacher in the border town of Roma, Texas, said he voted for Clinton because he “was really inspired by her message of goodness and trying to help people who really need it.” He said he’s sad about the way immigrants are treated.
“I feel like many of the people who are most upset don’t actually know any immigrants personally. They’re just talking about them based on what their idea is,” he said. “I wish I could just bring people here and have them meet good people who are coming across looking for a better life, escaping violence.”
Rural Americans overall have mixed views on whether Trump respects them, with 50 percent saying he does and 48 percent saying he doesn’t, a finding that goes against a common theory that Trump won by providing a relatable alternative to political elites. And while 54 percent of rural Americans approve of Trump’s job performance, 40 percent disapprove. Equal shares of rural Americans – 30 percent – strongly disapprove and strongly approve.
There also are significant divisions in small-town America between whites and minorities. One in 5 rural Americans are nonwhite, according to census data. In short, the sense of shared identity that connects many rural Americans – which factors into rural America’s sense of fairness and estrangement – is less intense among rural minorities than among rural whites. While 78 percent of white rural residents say other rural residents share their values, that falls to 64 percent among Hispanics and to 55 percent of black residents.
Still, the vast majority of rural Americans judge their communities favorably as a place where people look out for each other, which in follow-up interviews was cited a point of pride and distinction they say they cannot find in large urban centers. “It ain’t nothing like living inside a city,” said Clyde Hampton, 72, of Vienna, Georgia. “I’ll say this: Rural areas are a place where you can depend on your neighbor next door. And the town is so small everybody knows something; if something happens on this side of town and an hour later it’s all over the whole town.”
Video: Meet the rural Americans who fear they’re being forgotten.
<iframe width=”480″ height=”290″ scrolling=”no” src=”//www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/e16c483c-514d-11e7-b74e-0d2785d3083d” frameborder=”0″ webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>