Editor’s Note: Mark Montgomery is the Donald L. Wilson Professor of Enterprise and Leadership and Professor of Economics at Grinnell College. Irene Powell is a professor of Economics at Grinnell College. They are married and live in Iowa. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
The last presidential election showed that rural America is very different than urban America. As the Democratic presidential candidates head to Iowa this week, it doesn’t appear they are fully prepared to address these differences or offer real solutions to the economic problems facing this part of the country — it’s a misstep that could cost Democrats the rural vote.
Because the Iowa caucuses are the first formal contest in the presidential nomination process, rural America is getting a temporarily disproportionate share of media attention and visits from Democratic presidential hopefuls. All of the leading candidates have come to town this fall: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang, often more than once. In November, for example, Biden held a CNN town hall event just a few blocks from our house. That same month, Warren held a town hall, also a few blocks from our house. (Everything in this town is a few blocks from our house.)
And yet, those same Democrats debating in Des Moines this week are unlikely to propose much that will warm the hearts of voters out here on the lonely prairie. While they have lots of plans for addressing rural issues in lots of ways, they seem to be missing the spark that got Trump elected. Trump gained the trust of rural voters in the last election. He appealed to them emotionally. He promised to address the issues that affected their livelihood, like reining in immigration, the loss of health care and the loss of jobs.
To gain the trust of rural voters, the Democrats need to understand who they are. To begin with, they are a demographic minority and their ranks are shrinking each year. About 60 million people live in non-metropolitan areas, roughly 19% of the US population. Median household income is slightly lower out in the country, but so is the cost of living. Many people are surprised to learn that rural residents are more likely to be poor (16%) than urban residents (13%), and therefore more likely to receive assistance from the government they distrust. The poorest rural counties are predominantly in the South (75%).
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Rural America also faces some other unique challenges. Mechanization and economies of scale in agriculture have been driving down rural employment for many decades. In the last 50 years, the proportion of US workers in agriculture fell from 4.5% to less than 1.3%. Young people, in particular, are abandoning the countryside. Our county in Iowa, for example, has fewer people today than it had in 1900.
Unfortunately, we see young people leaving small town farming communities. It’s now unusual when we see the children of our friends and acquaintances move back or decide to stay in our small town. They usually stay in Iowa, but they move to Des Moines, Cedar Rapids or the “Quad Cities” near the Iowa-Illinois border. Government policies are not likely to change this decline.
If rural population decline is a difficult rural issue for Democrats — or anybody — to address, it would be easier to confront the effect of Trump’s trade war on corn and soybean exports, two crops especially important to Iowa. But Democratic contenders have been pretty coy in challenging the Trump tariffs. Warren says she wants a comprehensive, cohesive plan to confront China on trade; Biden has called Trump’s trade war “damaging and erratic,” but hasn’t openly demanded repeal of the tariffs; Sanders has said “of course I would use tariffs,” just in a more rational way. Only Pete Buttigieg and Tom Steyer, among the debaters, seem to be in direct opposition to them.
On arguably the most important Trump policy affecting rural America, the Democratic candidates are hemming and hawing.
Some of the ambivalence may be due to Trump’s $28 billion bailout which would likely need to be eliminated if the trade war ended. None of the presidential hopefuls want to be blamed for that.
None of this is to say that these Democrats lack more specific rural policy proposals. There are, for example, ideas for “Revitalizing Rural America” from Sanders, the “Biden Plan for Rural America” and Warren’s “My Plan to Invest in Rural America.” These proposals include a variety of policies, including vigorous antitrust regulations against consolidation of agricultural corporations (Warren and Sanders), expanding rural broadband access (Klobuchar and others), and improving rural health care (most of them). These plans contain a lot of details, surely more than any one rural voter can keep track of. Many of the policy suggestions, such as those for increasing access to rural health, for example, sound attractive. Creating rural outpatient hospitals and improvements in reproductive care in rural areas sounds great — any policy to improve health care is a good idea, though the methods for doing so are complicated. But all of the details are lost on the typical rural Americans, and they don’t trust the federal government to follow through anyway.
Ultimately, it is unclear how much a new Democratic president (or any president) could do to reverse the slow economic decline of rural America. It would be refreshing, however, to hear Democrats address issues like the trade war and the broader problems facing rural Americans — like loss of health care and jobs — in a way that resonates with them deeply, even if only briefly, as the caucuses approach.