Three Perspectives, One America
No matter where they live, Americans share many views in divided times
On a Friday morning in May, the Elmbrook Rotary Club held its weekly meeting at a racquet club in an affluent neighborhood 5 miles outside of Milwaukee. The members come from Elm Grove and Brookfield, two upscale parts of Waukesha County, a bellwether suburb that politicians and marketers study for trends.
It’s a lovely setting, framed by the banquet room windows: landscaped tennis courts, big yards without fences, shady streets without sidewalks. Culturally, politically, and economically, this spot is starkly positioned between the dense urban neighborhoods of Milwaukee and the small towns and rolling dairy land of rural Wisconsin.
Just after the Pledge of Allegiance, the club’s past president, Linda Edelstein, walked to the podium and, at my request, asked her fellow members the following question: “Do you think there are more differences or similarities among people who live in cities, in suburbs, and in rural areas?”
In this age of discord, it is one of the key questions before the country. As protest politics, Twitterized incivility, and 24-hour televised bickering tug at the fabric of the nation, the straining seams are to be found here, between the urban, suburban, and rural areas where Americans live day to day. Along these lines, the ongoing shifts in the country’s demographic plates—with a population growing more numerous, diverse, and older—are playing out in different ways.
After the contentious 2016 elections, analysts at the Pew Research Center set out to learn how much of the cacophony was the political noise of cable news and social media, and how much was being felt by people where they live.
“We know there are real divisions, but we wanted to know how much of that is rooted in partisanship and how much in communities,” says Kim Parker, the center’s director of social trends and head of the team that compiled the report, “What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities.”
The nationally representative survey of 6,251 adults was conducted online over two weeks in 2018 using Pew’s American Trends Panel. The results showed widening gaps on some hot-button social issues and disparities in economic prospects, but also deep similarities in how people in cities, suburbs, and rural areas view their reliance on family and neighbors and the sense of attachment they feel to their communities.
Cities like Milwaukee, where about 46 percent of residents are white, are on the leading edge of racial and ethnic change. Immigrants and migrants from other parts of the country are flowing to city neighborhoods and to faster-growing suburbs. Many newcomers also are arriving from rural areas, where the departure of young people seeking better jobs has led to smaller growth and lower economic hopes. Cities and suburbs have swelled by 13 percent and 16 percent, respectively, since 2000, while rural populations grew just 3 percent, according to the center’s analysis of census data for the report.
In some ways, the shifts may have fostered a sense of division among people who live in different communities, with roughly two-thirds or more of people in cities and rural areas feeling misunderstood by people in other types of communities. According to the center’s survey, 58 percent of rural residents say city dwellers don’t share their values; 53 percent of urbanites also see a rural-urban divide on values.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Aren’t you afraid to live in the city? Why would you choose that? How could you send your kids to city schools?’” says Barb Scotty, 55, a longtime Milwaukee resident who lives in a century-old house within walking distance of her job at a community redevelopment nonprofit. “I feel like we truly live in a bubble sometimes.”
Almost 200 miles north, in a barnyard filled with the babble of chickens and the grunts of pigs, Joel Kuehnhold recalls a suburban visitor who marveled at how much time he spent chatting with drop-by neighbors. She was amazed at a dynamic that he considers fundamental to life in a place where the nearest health care is a 40-minute ambulance ride away. “I think we share a lot of the same values, but sometimes you have to scratch the surface to find them,” he says.
Pew analysts did find some similarities among residents across communities, with inhabitants of all three reporting regular communication with neighbors, a sense of attachment to where they live, and the importance of family connections. They have many of the same concerns. Drug addiction is a worry for many, with 50 percent of urbanites and 46 percent of rural dwellers citing it as a major local problem.
“There are real differences in these communities, particularly when it comes to views on controversial social issues,” Parker says. “But when it comes to how people live their day-to-day lives, their values are really very similar.”
It was with that mix in mind that Linda Edelstein, 56, addressed her Rotary meeting in Elm Grove. Edelstein, who runs the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra in a converted Schlitz Brewing Co. warehouse, has roots in the city where she spent her childhood and deep ties in Waukesha County, where she moved after college and has lived for 25 years. Like most of the Rotarians who gather each Friday morning, Edelstein is upbeat, energetic, and ready to see the best in her fellow Green Bay Packers fans, wherever in Wisconsin they live. Unlike urban and rural residents, a majority of suburbanites say people from other areas have a positive view of suburbanites.
Edelstein put the question directly to her club. “Are we more united or divided,” she asked. “Let’s see a show of hands.”
Most Americans like where they live. The Pew survey found that only a quarter of rural residents would move if given a chance, and roughly a third of suburban and urban people say the same. Rural folk are the most rooted, with about half (47 percent) living in or near the places where they grew up. But substantial shares in all three communities have lived where they live for more than a decade. And for many, family connections are a key; more Americans point to family ties than to any other reason for staying in a community or coming back after an absence.
Barb Scotty chose Milwaukee for a professional internship 30 years ago in part because her Aunt Kathy lived there. She grew up and went to college in Champaign, Illinois, but now can’t imagine leaving the big city life that she and her husband, Brian, built here and that is the only one her two kids have ever known. Her aunt has passed away. But her Uncle Bill is a frequent dinner guest, and on a recent spring night he joined them and their son Ben for roast pork and craft beer.
“The only move I could think of making would be to another neighborhood in Milwaukee,” Scotty says.
Like 7 in 10 urbanites around the country, Scotty says living in a racially and ethnically diverse community is important to her. Her neighborhood, Historic Concordia, is largely white. But her workdays are a kaleidoscopic mix of races, ethnicities, and economic classes.
Walking to lunch from her nonprofit office—where the director and a majority of the staff are African-American—she headed down a street lined with cut-rate phone stores and Latino day care. “Immigrants and Refugees Welcome” read a banner over Central United Methodist Church.
One of Scotty’s favorite spots is Daddy’s, a soul-food buffet that draws cornbread and greens seekers of all races from around the city. “It’s kind of a melting pot,” Scotty says, nursing an iced tea. “It’s like the Jewish deli of North Avenue.”
A friendly chatterer, Scotty has befriended the black couple—Angela and Bennie Smith—who opened the restaurant in 2014 with $5,000 in savings and $10,000 in low-interest incubator financing. Judging by the lunchtime line, the work has paid off.
“This is the right place for us,” says Angela Smith, 47, over the crunch of fried chicken and the crooning of Sam Cooke.
Smith has lived in Milwaukee since she moved with her family from Chicago and still has two brothers and a sister here. Her part of the city, historically black Bronzeville, is shifting as younger white residents move in. But she likes the changes—“We’re getting more variety of people and shops”—and reports knowing almost all her immediate neighbors.
That’s not so common in cities overall, where the center’s survey found that only 24 percent of residents say they know all or most of their neighbors, compared with 28 percent in suburbs and 4 in 10 in rural areas. Folks outside of cities are also more trusting of their neighbors, with about 6 in 10 residents of suburbs and rural areas saying they have a neighbor they would trust with a key to their house; 48 percent of urbanites say that, including Smith.
“This is Milwaukee,” Smith says. “You lock your doors.”
Still, her restaurant experience has helped her connect with Wisconsinites of all types, including those from suburbs and farms.
“If they see Angela from Milwaukee, they just think inner-city gun violence,” she says. “If they see Angela the business operator, that’s when we relate. Running a business is hard no matter where you live.”
Smith and Scotty are both part of another common urban pattern: feeling good about their kids’ future job prospects. That’s in part because most of their children are in or bound for college and partly because cities and suburbs are outstripping rural areas on some economic measures. The average earnings per worker in urban areas was $49,515 in 2016, according to the Pew report, followed by $46,081 in the suburbs and $35,171 in rural areas, although these figures don’t account for differences in housing and other costs.
While most Americans worry about making ends meet—majorities in all three community types say they don’t currently have enough income to live the lives they want—optimism about the future is higher in the cities and suburbs, especially among those with a college degree.
Smith feels like her children’s prospects are brighter than her own were as a young person. Two of her daughters live and work in Milwaukee and a third is about to start at Boston’s Emerson College with plans to become a journalist. Smith doesn’t know if she’ll come back home after but knows she’ll have choices. “I think the sky is the limit for her,” she says.
Among adults who say they don’t currently have enough income to live the life they want, about half of those with at least a bachelor’s degree think they eventually will, whether they are in cities (53 percent), rural areas (53 percent), or suburbs (58 percent). But for those without a degree, optimism drops off, especially in rural areas where only about a third of people who are currently dissatisfied with their financial situation say they expect to be better off in the future (compared with 46 percent of suburbanites and 44 percent in urban areas).
Three hours’ drive north of Milwaukee, Gary Larsen knows how much more difficult it has become to make a living, with or without a degree, in the heart of rural Wisconsin. Many of his friends from high school have decided against taking over their family dairy operations as farming becomes more concentrated in large landholdings. And the once-robust string of paper mills along the Wisconsin River has shrunken.
Larsen, who moved to the town of Wisconsin Rapids when he was boy, didn’t finish college—“My four years in the Navy were my degree”—but started work as a cable installer in 1986. Almost 34 years later, long after cable morphed into fiber optics and internet services, he’s close to retiring as a manager. His wife, Paddy, an art teacher in two rural schools in different parts of surrounding Wood County, has a master’s degree. Their daughter also has a degree in art and is a new mother living on a nearby farm. Their son, who didn’t go to college, lives at home and works at a McDonald’s.
“He seems content with that,” Larsen says, driving past one of the closed paper mills that once provided both union scale and middle-management jobs. Unlike suburbs and cities where the number of employed adults ages 25-54 has risen since 2000, rural areas saw a decline, Pew found.
The Larsens live on a creek only a few hundred yards from his 84-year-old mother. As retirement approaches, he and his wife are looking to build a new house, but—like about 40 percent of rural folks interested in moving—they want to stay in their rural setting. Suburbanites who would like to move are similarly inclined to remain in a suburb, while 28 percent of city people would choose a rural area and about 4 in 10 would head for the suburbs.
The Larsens, as much as they love traveling abroad and visiting siblings scattered between Atlanta and Sacramento, California, have no interest in leaving an area rich in natural beauty and family connections.
“The best thing about taking a trip is getting back home again,” Larsen says.
One of their friends is Joel Kuehnhold. On a recent visit to his Lonely Oak Farm, he showed them how a small grower makes it in the changing agricultural economy: The two new litters of pigs he will raise for local restaurants, the 8 acres of vegetable plots to supply his weekly delivery subscribers, the tables set in the barnyard for a seasonal farm brunch scheduled for the next morning. Kuehnhold’s mother, Karen, who lives on the next farm along County Road S, was unpacking coolers on her return from one of their two Saturday farmers markets. Sheep grazed in the pasture.
“It’s a three-ring circus,” says Kuehnhold, whose family has been farming in the county since the 1880s and who is one of 26 percent of rural residents who have always lived where they grew up. “I don’t really want to be this varied, but it’s the only way to keep it going. Every time you see one of those farm auctions, it’s heartbreaking.”
Many of the people who are leaving the farms and small towns of rural areas are heading to the suburbs, site of the country’s fastest growth and some of its most pronounced demographic shifts: The proportion of people 65 and older in suburbs has climbed roughly 40 percent since 2000, compared with 26 percent in cities and 22 percent in rural areas. And suburban areas have experienced the country’s largest increase in people living in poverty since 2000, 51 percent.
Even Waukesha County, one of Wisconsin’s wealthiest jurisdictions, has pockets of food insecurity. Karen Tredwell, a lifelong resident, runs the county Food Pantry, a converted warehouse in a light industrial area. About 5,000 clients a month come for groceries, diapers, and sanitary products, many of them Latino agricultural workers and other immigrants and refugees.
“At one time we counted 17 different languages here,” says Tredwell, as some of her 300 volunteers sorted donated produce and boxed goods around her. Some were preparing boxes nutritionally tailored to older clients, a twice-a-month program they are increasing to once a week.
Tredwell, who has devoted much of her career to building up the Food Pantry, has lived outside the county only while at the university in Madison an hour west. Her fellow suburbanites are generous with their donations and time, she says. County officials recently routed a bus line near the food bank to aide her clients.
But in recent years, as politics in Wisconsin and nationally have turned more contentious, some residents have expressed resentment toward her foreign-born clients. The percentage of people who told the Pew researchers that living in a diverse community was important to them is lower in suburbs (59 percent) than in cities (70 percent), and Tredwell says that split is evident in her area.
“There are people in our county who ask us, ‘Why are these people here at all?’” she says.
Among her reliable supporters, though, are local Rotarians. When members of the Elmbrook chapter arrived for their Friday morning meeting, they found a flyer on each table promoting an upcoming food drive for the pantry.
The club is at the center of civic life in the bustling county. Brookfield Mayor Steve Ponto, a member, says his city of 39,000 is having a baby boom even as Wisconsin’s overall birthrate is at a 40-year low. The county is planning a new elementary school, and developers are adding apartments and condos to the makeover of an aging mall.
“People are coming here to start families,” Ponto says. “We’re working to keep up.”
Most of his constituents welcome the changes, he says. When a new mosque was proposed in Brookfield a few years ago, some neighbors complained but most were welcoming.
“The highest polarization tends to be between urban and rural areas,” says Pew’s Parker. “The suburbs tend to balance the two.”
The Rotary meeting’s agenda was a roll call of support for a growing county: a planned Boy Scout outing to a rifle range, a $50,000 fundraiser for local grants, interviews with candidates for need-based scholarships. The meeting opened with a prayer beseeching members “to engage and work with the world and the people around us” and ended with a presentation on the history of discrimination against the Irish in Milwaukee, the immigrants and refugees of an earlier age.
And Edelstein’s poll? Of nearly 90 attendees, only 10 raised their hands to say there are more differences than similarities among those who live in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The rest see more similarities.
Edelstein wasn’t surprised. The positivity of her fellow suburbanites is one reason she has no plans to leave her cul-de-sac of tidy houses and wide lawns.
“It’s home,” she says. “And I need my green grass.”
Photography by Nima Taradji for The Pew Charitable Trusts