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Charts of the Week: Divided politics, diverging economies

In U.S. political rhetoric, cities are often pitted against rural areas in arguments about what places constitute “real” America. While data show the most prosperous and innovative places are the largest metro areas, investments in mid-sized places can be good for both rural and urban America. This week’s Charts of the Week explores some of these divides, and solutions.

America’s two economies are divided by politics and are diverging

In the last decade, prosperity and income measures in Republican and Democratic districts have changed from near-parity to divergence. As Mark Muro and Jacob Whiton document, median household income and GDP per congressional seat in Democratic districts has risen sharply, while that of Republican districts has declined. “For at least the foreseeable future,” they write, “the nation seems destined to struggle with extreme economic, territorial, and political divides in which the two parties talk almost entirely past each other on the most important economic and social issues, like innovation, immigration, and education because they represent starkly separate and diverging worlds.”

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The nation’s largest metro areas are growing faster than other cities

The 2016 election revealed a dramatic gap between two Americas,” write researchers Clara Hendrickson, Mark Muro, and William Galston, “one based in large, diverse, thriving metropolitan regions; the other found in more homogeneous small towns and rural areas struggling under the weight of economic stagnation and social decline.” The largest, tech-centered metro areas like San Francisco, Boston, and New York have accounted for over 70% of U.S. employment growth since the great recession, far more than the nation’s smaller cities, towns, and rural areas. These authors propose a series of people- and place-based policies to “push back against the divergent features of today’s digitally supercharged economy.”

Figure 1

EMPLOYMENT GROWTH IS STRONGEST IN METRO AREAS, WEAKEST IN RURAL

Nathan Arnosti and Amy Liu note that the “plight of rural America, and ideas for its economic revival, continues to animate policy discussions, including among Democrats concerned about their ability to appeal to blue-collar voters.” But they note that one solution is access to cities and their markets. “Rather than see rural America as existing in isolation from urban centers, or characterize the two sets of communities as locked in a zero-sum game for economic growth,” Arnosti and Liu argue, “we should recognize that rural America’s economic success is linked with that of America’s cities.”

U.S. employment by community type

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