Wednesday, December 15, 2010

City Mouse and Country Mouse

The census figures are starting to roll in, and before long we’ll be awash in “analysis” the purpose of which is less to enlighten us than to “warn” us about how our society is crumbling in or way or another. The article in MinnPost today by Sharon Smickle is a classic case in point.

Analyzing the data, she finds a growing divide between urban and rural communities. The subhead reads: “The same lines that divide America are visible throughout the state. In pockets of rural Minnesota, people are far poorer, older and less educated than those who live in select Twin Cities suburbs and Rochester neighborhoods.”

But looking at the accompanying map, I don’t see any divide. The poor areas (dark green) shade into the moderately well-off areas in every direction. These chartreuse areas, in turn, shade into light green areas where people are quite well off. As we approach the very urban core, things grow somewhat darker again. Anyone asked to draw a line marking the “divide” Sharon is referring to would find it impossible to do so.

If we reduce the figures to their starkest and simplest state—like sliding the contrast bar in Photoshop all the way to the right—we’ll see a radical difference between urban and rural, black and white. But that effect is as patently artificial as a manipulated photograph. All it really tells us is that urban and rural demographics are different, as are urban and rural life. Is that news? I think I first read about such things in Aesops Fables, which appeared about 2,500 years ago.

The upshot of Sharon’s article is that urban folk, on average, are slightly younger, better educated, and make more money than small-town folk. (Most allegedly “rural” people live in small towns, and only 6% earn a living related to agriculture. An even smaller percentage actually “work” the land.) This is presumably because many small-town folk go to the city to get an education and never come back. Can we blame them for this? Then again, older people sometimes move to a cabin out-state when they retire, or back to their old home town, where the pace of life is gentler and health care costs may be more manageable, thus bringing the average age up and the average income down in that region.

Is there a crisis here? Is there a radical divide?

Meanwhile, what census statistics can’t track is the shadow economy that a growing number of young people seeking a simpler lifestyle move to small towns to enjoy.

The one interesting item Sharon mentions is that “rural” folk own more vehicles than urban folk. Always looking on the dark side of things, she attributes this to the lack of public transportation options out-state. But I’m not so sure we need to feel sorry for our country cousins, who have put up the “closed” sign on the body shop window and are out roaming the hills on their ATVs and snow machines, while we’re cooped up in suburban office towers planning desperately how to avoid the rush hour traffic.

In La Fontaine’s version of “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,” the two rodents enjoy a fine dinner until the cat arrives to send them scurrying. The country mouse refuses a repeat invitation, remarking:

…It’s not that I’m critical of
the food. You served the best.

But at home I eat in peace,
And nobody interrupts.
Goodbye, then, and to hell
With pleasure that fear corrupts!

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