Editorial: In both Kansas and the nation, it’s the cities vs. the country, and we all are going to lose

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Live in Kansas long enough and you’ll hear a conversation about the split between rural and urban places in the state.

A recent one went like this: An individual from one of Kansas’ larger cities was griping about how he felt his child’s school district was being treated unfairly in a matter related to athletics, of course. Another individual noted that it could be worse, highlighting some of the challenges of 1A schools, which are the smallest in the state.

The response: They should just feel lucky they have a school at all.

Really? Perhaps all the residents who live in the thousands of square miles of rural Kansas also ought to bow a bit when speaking to their city neighbors.

Of course not. An appropriate response: You should just feel lucky that there is someone who wants to grow your food for you.

Think about that. Cities aren’t doing much to produce the commodities that are turned into food that feeds the world. Nor should they. The production of commodities requires large amounts of open space, which cities don’t have. It makes sense to have both urban and rural spaces, and it makes sense that they be valued more equally than they are today.

But conversations like the one above indicate that, instead, tensions between the two important places are growing. A new report by the Brookings Institute and The Wall Street Journal indicates it is happening on a national scale. Go to brookings.edu to see the interesting report in full. But here are some highlights of how America is dividing into two separate places:

• In 2008, U.S. House districts that voted Democratic comprised 39% of the total land area of the U.S., while Republican House districts totaled 61%. That is a sharp divide showing Democrats are stronger in urban areas while Republicans are stronger in rural areas. But by 2018, the divide became much deeper. Democratic U.S. House districts comprised just 20% of the land area, while Republican districts made up 80%. That’s not a map of a country. It is a map of a battleground.

• 70% of the nation’s digital and professional services economy takes place in Democratic House districts, while 60% of the nation’s agriculture economy takes place in Republican House districts.

• In 2008, the median household income of Republican House districts was $55,000 vs. $54,000 for Democratic House districts. In 2018, the median income for Republican districts was $53,000 and $61,000 for Democratic districts.

I can almost hear Democrats making their speeches about how this is so unfair to them. We are representing the part of America that is growing in success, yet the declining part of America has outsized influence to elect a president because of the Electoral College, they say. Get rid of the Electoral College, they say.

Such a response would only show why our country is so divided. America is made up of both population and places. They are both important. Democrats have won over more of the population. Republicans have won over more of the places.

The correct response is to come up with ways to make more places more prosperous. Introducing a plan to eliminate the Electoral College, and thus marginalize those places even more, will never be a winning strategy to heal the divide. Instead, start by recognizing the value some of these shrinking places have to America’s overall prosperity.

These places are home to a vital American industry: agriculture. It is an industry that needs a sparsity of population to be successful. But does that mean those who work in such an industry should be punished by losing their community’s school because it never will be as big or as efficient as some urban school? Of course not.

All the places in America have roles to play. Urban places like Silicon Valley and Wall Street have produced great innovation and great wealth. They should be revered in their own right. But so too should our rural areas. They would be much more prosperous places if food were priced as the life-essential product that it is. But instead, food is relatively cheap and abundant in America. Surely we are all glad for that.

There’s much that needs to be done to make America a more united place, but putting more value on all of our places — whether they are red or blue, shrinking or growing — would be a good first step.

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