Ideology and reality of small town America

Gail Collins wrote a really insightful op ed on the divisions that characterizes American politics today. Entitled “Running on Empty” she argues that: “Our biggest political division is the war between the empty places and the crowded places.” Crowded places (think big metros) wanting government, empty places (think small town/rural America) wanting to get rid of government. She writes:

The Tea Party is so Empty Places. Do you remember that Tea Party rally in Washington last year over the budget crisis? (That would be the spring budget crisis as opposed to the many other seasonal versions.) “Nobody wants the government to shut down,” began Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, diplomatically. “Yes we do!” cried voices from the crowd. The Empty Theory made a lot of sense when the country was full of isolated farms, but it lost its mojo when the farmland filled up with suburbs and we elected a long series of presidents who were, to one degree or another, Modified Crowded. But now Empty is making a comeback, less an expression of physical reality than a state of mind. People living on Social Security and Medicare in a 400-unit condo development built with federal subsidies can march to their congressman’s town-hall meeting and demand that he get government out of their hair.

Collins is right that many who now embrace the empty places loathing of government – no matter where they live – get big benefits from government. No where is this more true than in the country’s emptiest places. Small, if not nonexistent, government may be the ideology of her empty places, but it sure isn’t the reality. As detailed in the table below, small town/rural America – where about 40 million Americans live – is the most reliant places in America on government for their personal income, mainly from transfer payments. Yes you read that right, residents of non metropolitan America – who vote most reliably for lower taxes and less government – get a far higher proportion of their personal income from government income than anyone else.

Part of the appeal of this empty place ideology to those who live in metropolitan America is the story that if only the country were more like them we would have a better economy. Not true! As the data in the chart below – which breaks down per capita income by component – clearly demonstrates, if all of America was like non metropolitan American we would be far  poorer and far more dependent on government. Non metropolitan American is where per capita income is the lowest and, most importantly, where private sector employment earnings (both wages and employer paid benefits) are the lowest. Who wants to be like that?

Size of metro #of metros 2010 population Personal Inc Private Earn Gov Earn Div, Int & Rent Transfer Payments
3.0 million or more 17 127,439,030 $45,132 64.5% 12.0% 16.6% 15.3%
1.0 – 3.0 million 37 65,292,031 $38,070 60.8% 13.5% 15.8% 19.0%
500,000 – 1.0 million 46 31,486,986 $35,460 54.7% 14.5% 16.6% 21.1%
200,000 – 500,000 91 28,320,030 $35,589 52.5% 16.4% 15.8% 21.5%
under 200,000 120 16,299,519 $33,855 51.2% 18.1% 14.7% 23.2%
Non-metro counties N.A. 40,492,623 $31,619 45.1% 14.0% 15.5% 27.3%
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