Not long after the 2016 election, The Atlantic published an article investigating the cultural effects of higher education, or more accurately, how the financial benefits attributable to a college education were contributing to the growing urban/rural cultural divide.
The article began by describing two individuals from Indiana–a small-town resident with a high school education (80% of rural Americans lack a college degree) and an Indianapolis resident with a degree.
The article used the very different lives and prospects of those individuals to illustrate what it termed the “diverging fates of two parts of America in the past two decades.”
Half a century ago, economic opportunity and upward mobility were available to many white Americans, regardless of where they lived and what kind of education they had. They could graduate from high school and find a job at a local factory and make a good wage, or graduate from college and sit behind a desk and make a slightly better wage. About 90 percent of kids born in the 1940s earned more than their parents did, according to work by Stanford economist Raj Chetty. But beginning in the 1980s, the returns on a college education started growing, and more of the benefits of economic growth started accruing to only those with an education, as those without an education saw their opportunities shrink.
The gulf between those with a degree and those without has led to a politically consequential divergence between Americans who live in cities and those who populate the country’s struggling rural regions.
For a century leading up to 1980, poorer regions were catching up to richer regions of the country in terms of wages, as an oversupply of workers in richer regions drove wages down, while an undersupply in poorer regions drove wages up. But this “convergence,” as economists call it, petered out with the rise of computers.
Ever since the 1980s, computers have made some people more productive and others economically obsolete. The data shows that healthy regions with educated workers began to do better and better. ( Remember Richard Florida’s The Creative Class?) This divergence had geographic implications: people with college degrees are more likely to move to metropolitan regions, attracted not just by better job opportunities, but by the presence of other people like them.
Almost half of college graduates move out of their birth states by age 30, according to Enrico Moretti, an economist at Berkeley. Only 27 percent of high school graduates do. As booming cities draw in new college-educated workers, employers seeking these workers follow, and cities continue to gain strength like magnets. This improves the prospects of everyone in the region, including those without college degrees. The working-class strongholds that once prospered without college-educated workers, on the other hand, are doing worse and worse, as computers and robots replace the workers whose jobs haven’t been sent overseas, and, as a result, an oversupply of labor brings down wages for everyone still there.
One of the striking consequences of increasing educational and economic separation is that the winners are becoming more and more different from the losers. One scholar who studies this phenomenon calls it the “Great Divergence.” “
The consequences for small towns and rural regions are dramatic–and dire. Those consequences include high unemployment rates, skyrocketing numbers of poor mental health days, the Opiod epidemic, increasing numbers of suicides, and shorter life expectancies.
The Industrial revolution–also disruptive–introduced manufacturing jobs that didn’t require advanced training and education. The current “revolution” is focused on innovation and knowledge, rather than on the production of physical goods. As the author notes, companies that produce physical goods today can send those jobs overseas or automate them, a reality that has further depleted job opportunities for high school graduates.
The most pressing problems created by urban/rural economic disparities are political and cultural. The data shows that Trump’s base is largely located in areas where jobs are vulnerable to outsourcing or automation. He “performed well among voters without a college degree, and in places where full-time employees don’t earn very much.” Democrats, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly supported by those who live in urban areas and increasingly by inhabitants of suburbia. Extreme gerrymandering has given rural voters an edge, despite the fact that they are numerically a minority. How long that will last is uncertain.
What isn’t uncertain is the cultural gulf between those two Americas.
Our “bubbles” aren’t all digital. They are also geographic. And I have no idea how to answer the most important question posed by this situation: what should we do to ameliorate it?