Speak Your Piece: The Times, the Election and Rural America

The Brookings Institution and the New York Times are convinced the federal government spends "vastly more" per person in rural areas than in the cities. Why do they continue to get this story wrong?

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A New York Times columnist Wednesday complained that Iowa and New Hampshire were too rural to have such a prominent role in nominating presidents.

David Leonhardt wrote that having early primaries in these states distorts our politics, creates an anti-urban bias in policy, leads to outsized federal spending in rural areas and is profoundly undemocratic.

Here we go again.

There are a number of folks at the New York Times who are convinced that rural America is getting too much out of the federal government. Cities are ignored, goes the logic, because the early primary states are more rural than the national average.

And, according to Leonhardt, this imbalance creates national policies where “(s)uburbs and rural areas receive vastly more per-person federal largess than cities.”

This is a very old story from the Times and, before we go any further, it is wrong on the facts. Per capita spending in rural areas is LESS than in the cities. The tallies can be found here.

Despite the data, the Times has been pushing this argument since before the last presidential election. The paper is abetted by the Brookings Institution, which has been saying for some time that the United States is an “anti-urban nation.” Now, it appears, the paper and Brookings are at it again, just in time for 2012.

Leonhardt’s column follows the Times/Brookings formula. Here is what the Times wrote in a February 2008 editorial

For more than a generation, presidential aspirants have mostly resisted acknowledging the importance of the cities’ well being. Blame the front-loading of the primary season with rural states, or electoral and legislative systems that give disproportionate weight to sparsely populated states. Whatever the reason, it is shortsighted.

Then, the Times editorial quotes Bruce Katz from Brookings.

In 2009, the Times ran a front page story claiming that cities were constantly losing out to rural areas when it came to federal highway spending. Two Times reporters wrote that “it is clear that the stimulus program will continue that pattern of spending disproportionately on rural areas.” 

Then the reporters quoted somebody from Brookings. 

Leonhardt (a Pulitzer Prize winner and a “third generation native of New York”) adopted this template for a column that appeared Wednesday. He makes the same (spurious and, by now, shopworn) claim about disproportionate federal spending in rural areas — and then he quotes Bruce Katz from Brookings.

(I should note here that sometimes Brookings does its own dirty work, as it did in this particularly mean-spirited piece for The New Republic headlined “Village Idiocy – Enough with small-town triumphalism.”  And we shouldn’t forget that Washington Post whiz kid Ezra Klein also wrote that the federal government devoted a “raft of subsidies to sustaining rural living.” Klein, at least, managed to come to his wrong conclusion without quoting anyone from Brookings.)

All of these stories failed to support their claims that rural America was somehow making off with the federal treasury. The front-page piece about highway spending, for example, was so confused that it counted most of the country’s cities as “rural” in its calculations. Lexington (KY), Reno (NV), Durham (NC) and more than 250 other metropolitan areas were all considered “rural” in the Times’ story about highway spending. 

Leonhardt is just flat wrong. There is no evidence that rural communities “receive vastly more per-person federal largess than cities.” Per capita federal spending in rural areas is less than in the cities. The only reason spending in rural areas is close to city levels is that more rural residents receive Social Security — a consequence of age, not geography. 

Daily Yonder/ERS
If you count only spending on communities, then the per capita spending in rural America is vastly lower than in the cities.
When you measure community spending, as the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service has been doing for decades, then per capita spending in rural areas falls far behind spending in the cities.

The argument made by the Times editorial board, Brookings and by Leonhardt is that the presidential election process is a folly, made worse by placing so much emphasis on just two states that are “unrepresentative” because they lack major cities. (New Hampshire and Iowa have about 60% of their populations living in cities; the national average is 80%.) As a result, candidates lock themselves into federal policies that lavish funds on rural America. 

Great theory, but the figures on federal spending tell the exact opposite story.

The nation should have an urban policy. It doesn’t, but not because presidential primaries begin in Iowa and New Hampshire nor because of the make-up of the Senate. (By the way, is it more likely now that an urban policy to Leonhardt’s and Brookings’ liking would come out of the representative and Republican House or the unrepresentative and Democratic Senate?)

The nation doesn’t have a plan for rural communities either and several advocates have concluded that rural America will never get much notice from what they consider the most urban-centric administration in memory.

Nobody is happy. And blaming Iowa or Obama for the general disinterest in both rural and urban America hasn’t done much good. Better if we all complained less and worked more.

To that end, the Daily Yonder will publish a two-part series, beginning Monday, on what a national rural policy should look like. Karl Stauber, who directs the Danville (VA) Regional Foundation, writes it.

We’ll leave urban policy to Brookings, Leonhardt, Klein, The New Republic and the New York Times. I think they’ve got that side of the street covered and it appears they are well acquainted.

Bill Bishop is co-editor of The Daily Yonder.

 

 

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