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A Drop of Ink: Getting It Wrong About ‘Rural Rage’

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Reed Anfinson

“Rural resentment has become a central fact of American politics — in particular, a pillar of support for the rise of right-wing extremism,” New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economic columnist Paul Krugman wrote in a column Jan. 26.

This right-wing extremism festers and spreads in rural America, locking up its residents in their resentment for urban, elite America, ensuring the Republican Party’s political dominance, Krugman writes.

“But is this shift permanent? Can anything be done to assuage rural rage?” Krugman asks.

Krugman’s column was written in response to a summary of research done into “rural resentment” by Katherine J. Cramer, in which she highlights three reasons for rural residents feeling downtrodden: Our needs are ignored by federal lawmakers, we don’t get our fair share of federal dollars, and our lifestyles aren’t respected or understood by those living in the big cities.

All three conclusions are wrong, he says, and not to defend or flatter rural residents.

Krugman knew when he wrote his column, he would create controversy. “I’m sure that my saying this will generate a tidal wave of hate mail and lecturing rural Americans about policy reality isn’t going to move their votes. Nonetheless, it’s important to get our facts straight,” he writes.

According to Krugman, since President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were implemented in response to the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, farm subsidies have supported agricultural rural America. They soared during the Trump presidency, coming to account for 40% of total farm income as he tried to offset the consequences of his trade war with China. It had imposed retaliatory tariffs on American ag products, including soybeans, pork, and dairy products.

Rural America benefits from USDA Rural Development programs that finance infrastructure projects, rural hospital construction, rural housing, and agricultural commodity processing.

When it comes to federal spending in rural areas, we benefit significantly from Medicare and Social Security payments since our population is older. We are also poorer compared to urban areas resulting in a higher number of food stamp recipients and a higher percentage of people on Medicaid.

As we receive more than our fair share, we pay less in federal taxes because our residents earn less.

Combined, rural ag subsidies, support for seniors and the poor, and our lower tax payments all mean major metropolitan regions of the country are subsidizing us, Krugman concludes. All these federal dollars flowing into rural areas benefit our local main streets. They support a population that fills our schools and employs people working for our local governments. We should be thankful, not resentful.

As for disrespecting rural people, Krugman is dismissive of the complaint. “Well, many people have negative views about people with different lifestyles; that’s human nature.” He goes on to say the complaints are hypocritical.

“There is, however, an unwritten rule in American politics that it’s OK for politicians to seek rural votes by insulting big cities and their residents, but it would be unforgivable for urban politicians to return the favor,” he writes.

Krugman acknowledges, in a disparaging way, that rural areas are disadvantaged. “A changing economy has increasingly favored metropolitan areas with large college-educated workforces over small towns. The rural working-age population has been declining, leaving seniors behind. Rural men in their prime working years are much more likely than their metropolitan counterparts to not be working. Rural woes are real,” he writes.

While Krugman rightly points out the benefits rural communities receive, and our larger Medicare and Social Security population, he fails to acknowledge several other realities.

Our children are the most valuable export to metropolitan areas of the country. We raise them, pay for their educations, and they go on to fill essential roles in urban communities. They buy homes, pay real estate taxes, send their children to their schools, and shop at their stores.

He doesn’t recognize the central role that U.S. agricultural subsidies play in supporting America’s cheap food policy. These programs lend stability to crop production and farm ownership, ensuring Americans pay a relatively small share of their income to buy food.

If farmers were subject to the full impact of every natural disaster, drastic fall in commodity prices, and adverse effects of crops-as-political-weapon strategies, many would go broke. This would lead to greater concentration of ownership, with Wall Street displacing family farmers, then manipulating prices even more.

His comment about rural men in their prime not working is flat-out wrong. Rural Minnesota has record low unemployment.

Social Security payments aren’t a gift from urban taxpayers. They have been earned by through decades of work.

As rural America’s population falls as a total percentage of the nation’s population, increasing congressional and state legislative influence goes to metropolitan areas. The stereotypes of uneducated, resentful rural residents created by East Coast media can influence decisions that have a profound impact on rural economies and life.

In answering his own questions on how to diminish “rural rage,” Krugman sees it depending on two things: “Whether it’s possible to improve rural lives and restore rural communities, and whether the voters in these communities will give (Democratic) politicians credit for any improvements that do take place.”

Democratic support for Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs benefiting rural residents isn’t appreciated. He says the programs democrats have pushed to increase rural employment are dismissed.

What Democrats and the East Coast media miss are the influential dynamics at play in rural America: we are more socially conservative and more frugal about spending.

We also can’t dismiss the real primary drivers of resentment in rural America: the internet’s poisonous misinformation stream and our national television media’s abandonment of balanced news reporting.

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