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Professor Says There Is no Divide in America

In an op-ed in the December 27, 2018 Wall Street Journal, University of Southern California Professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett claimed that there is not a divide between rural and urban America, when measured by homeownership, mortgage payments, household income, education, and ethnic diversity.

Well, there certainly isn't a divide the way that she measures these variables.  And if she considered ethnic diversity, there is little evidence of it in her commentary.

For example, she compares household income in midwestern rural communities with the household income in such cities as St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee.   She says that 42% of the rural communities have higher median household incomes than the aforementioned cities.  Of course, that means that 58% have lower median household incomes.

In any event, this statistic is meaningless without knowing what is considered income and how many workers there are per household—which in turn is related to race.

The professor doesn't define Income, although it can be defined as wages, or profits from a family business, or investment returns, or such transfer payments as Social Security, SSI, Medicaid, welfare, and the earned income tax credit.  Without a definition, comparisons between rural and urban America are meaningless.

On a related note, household income from wages can vary considerably between single-parent households and two-parent households, if for no other reason than there are more working adults, on average, in two-parent households.  How do rural and urban communities differ in the percent of single-parent households?  Does the City of St. Louis, where blacks comprise 46% of the population, have more single-parent households than the rural community of, let's say, Rolla, Missouri, which is only 4.1% black?   The professor doesn't say. 

The professor makes a similar mistake (or intentional sleight of hand) in comparing education levels between rural and urban America.  She admits that urban residents have higher levels of education on average than rural ones, but goes on to say that education levels can vary much more within urban areas than between urban and rural areas.  She cites the example of Seattle, where 60% of residents have at least a bachelor's degree, versus the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Ana, Calif., where only 12% have at least a bachelor's degree.  What she doesn't say is that nearly 80% of Seattle's population is either white or Asian, the two races with the highest educational achievement.  By contrast, 78% of Santa Ana's population is Latino, a race/ethnicity with relatively low educational achievement.  (Note that such major Seattle companies as Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft espouse diversity but aren't headquartered in Santa Ana, or, for that matter, in my hometown of Tucson, which, like Santa Ana, has a high percentage of Latinos and a high poverty rate.)  

But statistical malpractice is not the problem with the professor's op-ed.  The problem is the variables that she selected in order to show that there is not a divide in America between rural and urban. Had she chosen other variables, the conclusion might have been different.

For example, she could have chosen class as a variable, and specifically, members of the white working class who have lost well-paid jobs to deindustrialization and global trade.  Or she could have chosen party affiliation, which would show a rural-urban split between Republicans and Democrats.  Or she could have chosen Walmart shoppers versus Whole Foods shoppers.  Or the religious versus the secular.  Or patriots versus globalists.  Or those affected negatively by immigration versus those affected positively.  Or those who think their kids won't have it better than themselves versus those who think the opposite.  Or wearers of Duluth underwear versus wearers of skinny jeans. Or hunters versus those who buy their meat already killed and dressed. Or drivers of Ford trucks versus drivers of Priuses.  Or eaters of beef jerky versus eaters of kale. Or watchers of Fox News versus watchers of PBS.  Or coal miners versus USC professors.     

A professor who thinks that there isn't a rural-urban divide in America is like Rapunzel.  She's locked in a tower—an ivory tower.

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