Rural Lags in ‘Well Being,’ Says New Study

Congressional districts with a higher proportion of rural population tend to score lower on a well-being index. But other factors like education have far more influence on human development, says an author of the report. Still, only one congressional district with an above-average percentage of rural population scores in the top 100 districts, while 28 "more rural" districts score in the bottom 100, according to the index.

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Disparity in America can be worlds apart – or right down the road, according to a new report that ranks congressional districts by their “well being.”

The congressional district whose residents have the highest well being, according to the report, is California’s 18th, an affluent and prosperous region just south of San Francisco that includes high-end cities like Palo Alto and Los Gatos, along with the southern fringe of San Jose.

To reach the nation’s lowest ranked congressional district, just drive over the coastal range to the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley. There, in California’s 21st congressional district, life expectancies are five years shorter than in the 18th district. Median earnings are less than half. And the high school graduation rate is one sixth that of the more affluent congressional district.

One difference between the two districts is the size of their rural populations. In the upscale 18th, less than 5 percent of residents are classified as rural by the U.S. Census. In the tough-times 21st, about 15 percent of residents are rural.

A good portion of those rural residents in the 21st district are low-paid workers who pick crops on San Joaquin farmlands, said Sarah Burd-Sharps, an author of the report Geographies of Opportunity, produced by Measure of America.

The study takes data on residents’ health, education and economic status and computes a well-being index, which is used to rank 436 congressional districts (the report includes the District of Columbia, which has a nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives).

While rurality is one of the conditions that affects well being, it’s not an especially strong factor, Burd-Sharps told the Daily Yonder. Other factors like education levels explain more of the variance in the well-being report.

 “If there is one magic bullet for well being, it’s education,” Burd-Sharps said. “People think of education as leading to a better job and a bigger paycheck. But it’s also true that better-educated people live longer, are more likely to vote, and are more likely to have kids who do well in school.”

“Disparity of Investment”

To get a sense of how rurality might figure into congressional district well-being rankings, we sorted districts by the percentage of population in each district that lives in a rural area.  (We used Census congressional district data. That’s different from the Office of Management and Budget county level metropolitan statistical area system.)

In general, we found that as the percentage of rural population goes up, the congressional district’s well-being index tends to go down.

Daily Yonder. Data: Measure of America
The black trendline shows that the well-being index tends to decline modestly as congressional districts become more rural.

This isn’t especially surprising, given what we know about rural incomes, health status and rates of higher education, which tend to be lower than urban areas. Some of that is due to age differences – rural people tend to be older than average and therefore more likely to have health issues and lower earnings. And they may have completed their education when there was less emphasis on a college degree.

But some of the explanation for rural America’s generally lower scores may have something more directly to do with geography.

Burd-Sharps said she thinks some of the discrepancy is the result of a disparity of investment in rural vs. urban areas.

Large cities “benefit from public and private investment in things like good K-12 schools, research universities, parks and walkable streets,” she said. Rural areas are less likely to receive such investment, she said.

That could be one reason the top 10 congressional districts are located in four of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, she said (New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.). These regions benefit from public and private resources that improve community conditions and attract more skilled workers, which in turn attracts higher-paying employers, she said.

The report’s recommendations include paying more attention to education and raising wages in areas where there are few opportunities for high-wage, high-skill jobs.

“The tried and true way to get people to exit low-paying jobs is for people and society to invest in education,” Burd-Sharps said. In areas with less opportunity for high-wage jobs, “we need to ensure that all jobs pay wages that afford self-sufficiency and economic security,” she said. “Many businesses are realizing that it’s good for business to raise wages. When wages go up, low and behold, workers have enough money to start spending again.”

She said raising wages is both a private and public issue. “It’s an issue for society,” she said. “Having all of these people who are barely able to make ends meet means there are more kids growing up in poverty, and that’s terrible for society. It’s very costly.”

 
Map via Measure of America

More Rural Findings in the Data

To help us spot more rural patterns in well being, we put congressional districts into two groups – ones that had above-average percentages of rural population (“more rural”) and below-average population (“less rural”). Nationally, 19.3 percent of the U.S. population is rural, according to the Census definition. So that was our cut-off point for “more rural” and “less rural.”

  • The top 100 congressional districts in well being had only one “more rural” district among them. That was Washington’s 1st district, north of Seattle. That district ranked 41st in well being. The district was only slightly more rural than the national proportion.
  • In contrast, the bottom 100 congressional districts had 28 districts that ranked “more rural.”
  • The scatter plot in the middle of this article also tells the story. Districts on the left side of the chart (less rural) tend to score all over the scale, both high and low. As rurality increases, the range of scores gets narrower and starts to cluster toward the lower end of the scale.
  • The toughest rural congressional districts have well-being scores that are similar to hard-hit inner-city districts, Burd-Sharps said.
  • The nation’s most rural congressional district, Kentucky’s 5th, ranked next to last in well being and last in life expectancy. Residents of Kentucky 5th district (where three quarters of residents are rural) die an average of 10 years younger than residents of California’s 18th.
  • Eighty-four percent of the districts that were “more rural” were represented by a Republican member of Congress. Democrats represented only about 15 percent of “more rural” districts. (If representation were proportional, it would mirror the current congressional party split –56 percent Republican, 44 percent Democrat.
  • Republicans represented only about 35 percent of districts that were more urban than average.
  • There wasn’t a lot of difference in political affiliation from the best ranked districts to the worst. Republicans represented 21 of the top 50 districts and 23 of the worst districts.

 

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