Notes from the urban/rural divide: Government funding

The urban/rural divide feels more extreme than ever before right now. 17 percent of Americans live in rural areas, yet they’ve been blamed for the outcome of the election, typecast as bigoted, narrowminded, poorly educated conservatives, and treated like garbage by a pretty big chunk of the urban and suburban establishment. This is by way of warning that you are going to be seeing a lot more of this series in coming years, because urbanites apparently need a wakeup call. Yes, you do need to understand rural America. You do need to understand rural issues. You do need to comprehend that rural communities are complicated, diverse, and frustrated — because they are frustrated, and there are reasons for it.

Today, I want to touch upon funding, because this is a really big issue that’s going to get more serious, and it starts like this: Rural communities feel that they are underfunded, claiming that all their tax dollars are going to Washington and they are not seeing any of the benefits. Urbanites hotly insist that they are ‘subsidising’ rural communities. Both sides are actually correct…but not in the way that they think they are.

Let’s start with something very basic here. You, Jane Q. Public, are heading to the grocery store to pick up some rice. You decide to hit up the bulk bins because you understand something very simple: Packaging is expensive, and buying by the packaged unit is pricy, because you’re getting all the bells and whistles (the branding, the packaging itself, the special handling, blah blah blah). In the bulk bins, you can get a whole lot of whatever it is you need pretty cheaply, because the question isn’t ‘would you like some rice?’ but ‘how much rice would you like?’

As anyone who buys products and services in high volume knows, the more you get, the cheaper it is per unit, generally. If I order 100 business cards, a printer might charge me $100. I could get 200 for $150, because the printer already has the press going, the art’s been done, the proofs are finalized, and really the only issue now is a little extra paper and time. What the hell does bulk delivery have to do with funding in rural communities? I’m glad you asked.

Here’s the thing: In rural America, it costs more to do less, because there are fewer people and they are more far-flung. A town of 7,000 really does need a hospital, and it’s going to be much more expensive to administer than in a town of 700,000, because of an economy of scale issue. It’s also going to have fewer services because of how patient demand works. That hospital might have a knee replacement every two weeks, in contrast with an urban facility where an OR might see 15 a day, supporting multiple specialists. It becomes hard to attract and retain doctors, because there’s not enough work and there’s no clear path for advancement. Patients start going out of the area. The hospital suffers even more. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Delivering services in rural areas is, unit for unit (recipient for recipient), more expensive. It costs more money to electrify rural communities. To educate rural children. To deliver rural broadband. To provide rural health care services. To…you get the picture, I think. The point is that rural areas are expensive to run, and they can be expensive to live in, depending on where people are living.

I would argue that people should be allowed to live where they live, and that there is an intrinsic value to maintaining rural communities because they are part of America. But also, rural communities provide services that urban and suburban Americans need and want. Where does your food come from? Your timber? Your oil and gas products? Your minerals? Where do you go when you want to have a scenic, beautiful vacation? Where do you send your children to summer camp?

Residents of rural communities should be entitled to the same base quality of living available anywhere else in America, though rural residents understand that there are some services they may not be able to get because the economy of scale is just so wildly out of adjustment. For example, you’re not going to find gender confirmation surgery in a community where a surgeon might see three to five patients a year. But the basics: A clean, warm, dry home with electricity and running water, an education, health care, a safe food supply, fire protection, law enforcement, these are things that should be available to all Americans who want them.

So, who pays for these services in rural communities? Theoretically, it would be the taxes of rural residents. In actuality, there aren’t enough people to contribute the amount of tax dollars needed to support infrastructure and operations — and that’s before noting that rural communities are extremely poor. Where does the money to make up the shortfall come from? You’ve got it: State and federal governments, drawing upon revenues from people in suburban and urban areas.

AHA! So we ARE subsidising rural communities! 

Except actually no. Have you noticed that your food is artificially cheap? Because we have. Have you noticed that natural resources in the United States tend to be pretty inexpensive? Because we have. Have you noticed that it’s often very cheap to vacation or buy real estate in rural communities? Because we have. And that changes the nature of the ‘subsidy’ conversation, because while we may be getting your tax dollars, we are actually giving you economic benefits in return. It’s tricky to quantify this stuff, especially given the diversity of rural communities, but suffice it to say that it is not as simple as a bunch of hicks standing around Congress with their hands out, waiting for money to fall their way.

Okay, so why do rural communities still feel like all their money is going to Washington and they are unjustly underfunded if in fact the money is going in the other direction? Well, my friends, that would be because rural communities are underfunded, and have to fight for every single scrap of infrastructure funding they get. Why are rural communities so poor? Why is the quality of life so low? Why is it so difficult to access services? Why, if you pull up a list of counties without abortion services, are most of those counties rural? Why are many rural roads in atrocious condition? Why are there parts of the US that still aren’t electrified? Why is rural broadband penetration (arguably a necessary utility given the ubiquitous nature of the internet) so low? Why are nearly 700 rural hospitals across America facing closure? Why….are rural communities lacking a host of other basic necessities and services?

These are the questions people in rural communities are asking. And maybe that sometimes comes out as ‘where the hell are our tax dollars going?’ And maybe, more often, it comes out as ‘we need more support from the government than we are getting, and that is unfair,’ which it is. There is a gaping rural/urban wealth gap, and when people in rural areas express frustration over economic inequalities, they’re not wrong — and the solution isn’t to suggest punishing them by choking off their already limited funding.

Image: Road to Wakiti Creek, Indigo Skies Photography, Flickr