Iowa's urban-rural divide may be overblown, poll shows
A new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll shows that Iowans in the cities and countryside don't resent each other as much as you might think.
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The steady drumbeat from numerous stories since President Donald Trump won the White House has been how his election — flipping Midwestern and Rust Belt areas previously won by Barack Obama — highlighted a deepening divide between urban and rural America.
As the theory goes, voters in small towns and the countryside, sick of being abandoned and neglected, resent big-city folk and a snooty coastal culture that mocks them.
“Elite” city dwellers, meanwhile, look down on the unenlightened hicks who "cling to their guns and religion."
Here in Iowa, we had the “water war” of recent years, an environmental battle between Des Moines and rural northwest Iowa counties that in some respects pitted these two tribes against each other. It spawned everything from a lawsuit by Des Moines Water Works to a Pulitzer for a local newspaper’s editorials on the subject. Indignation and rage flew in both directions.
Despite all this, a new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll shows that rural and urban Iowans don’t harbor all that much animosity for each other.
What’s more, nearly one-fourth of Iowans in cities admit that they’re jealous of small-town and rural folk.
One of the poll questions was this: Whether you’re urban or rural, do you have more envy or resentment (or neither) for the other?
Most rural Iowans (69 percent) don’t envy or resent people in the cities.
A majority of urban Iowans (59 percent) also answered “neither” about their feelings for those in sparser areas.
But 24 percent of urban residents did admit to envying rural Iowans, which is more than twice the portion of rural Iowans (10 percent) who pine for city life.
The poll of 800 adults, conducted July 9-13 by Selzer and Co., has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Various definitions for "rural" and "urban" exist from one government agency or demographer to the next. For the purposes of this poll, those who said they lived in a city with at least 50,000 people were considered urban.
'If I had my choice, I'd be living in small-town Iowa'
That may make New York City residents raise an eyebrow. But consider that Iowans in even mid-sized cities often feel they live in a world apart from small-town main streets.
Bill Jackson, 65, originally from New York, has spent half a century in Dubuque, a city of about 58,000 where he retired from a job at John Deere. He was among the Iowans polled who said he envied the rural counties.
He still has fond childhood memories of living for several years in Guttenberg, a Mississippi River town of fewer than 2,000 north of Dubuque. He thinks of it as a friendlier, more close-knit community.
"In Dubuque, you know your friends and that’s about it," he said.
Not that he intends to relocate.
“My kids and grandkids are here,” he said. “I wouldn’t move out of the city now.”
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Kim Fouts of Waterloo echoed Jackson's sentiments.
“If I had my choice, I’d be living in small-town Iowa,” she said. In her view, rural Iowa doesn’t have to “mess with all the gangs, the shootings, the muggings.”
“I mean, I don’t even leave my house after 7 o’clock at night.”
Perceptions of crime versus the reality were not a part of this poll. But Fouts, 66, does recognize that she also relies on her city and its array of conveniences.
Since 1988 she has remained mobile with the help of a wheelchair. The metro bus and other city services are crucial to her everyday life.
72 percent of Iowans prefer their state to any other
Keep in mind that Iowa, despite recent waves of immigration in some corners, remains dominated by native-born residents — more than 70 percent of us. That statistic, on top of the continuous migration of people from rural areas to cities, is part of the backdrop to this poll.
My own path as a native Iowan has followed the trend: raised in rural southwest Iowa and now working for a newsroom in the heart of the capital city. Among plenty of urban Iowans, there remain echoes of a rural family history to be fondly remembered, if not idealized.
"Most people are only a generation or two removed from rural roots or a small town," said David Peters, an associate sociology professor at Iowa State University in Ames, who has spent decades studying the relationships between rural and urban America.
More of this common ground turned up in the poll: 85 percent of us think that Iowa’s “economic reliance” on agriculture is mostly good. Only 11 percent consider it to be “mostly bad,” while 3 percent are unsure.
The vast majority of Iowans — 72 percent — would rather live here than any other state. (Yes, that includes Hawaii.)
Even 62 percent of those under age 35 — the young Iowans we assume are desperate to flee home until they’re ready to a raise a family in safe and boring Iowa — say they want to live here rather than any other place in the nation.
47 percent of Trump voters say cities too influential
But when the poll drilled down beyond quality of life to one of the core issues — who wields political power beneath the golden dome in Des Moines — some of the cracks begin to show in this somewhat surprising urban-rural harmony.
Nearly half of Iowans, 48 percent, feel like there’s a balance in rural and urban influence in the Iowa Legislature.
One-third, 33 percent, feel the scale tips to the cities, while 14 percent see rural Iowa as having the upper hand.
But there's a starker split when you pick apart the results among Trump and Clinton voters: 47 percent of Trump voters feel the cities wage too much influence, compared to 20 percent who voted for Clinton.
Conversely, 28 percent of Clinton voters feel rural Iowa has too much legislative power compared to a meager 3 percent of Trump voters.
Even so, Peters said that "the divide between cities and these truest of rural people isn’t a divide necessarily on politics or economic differences or resentment that cities are getting more."
It's more that cities "puzzle the hell out of" rural Iowans. They see their urban counterparts investing in pricey downtown lofts or sprawling farmers markets or pushing extreme water quality initiatives.
"The priorities that cities spend their money on seem frivolous to them," Peters said.
A generation from now, Peters expects more conflict in the Legislature as the Des Moines-Ames and Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridors boom, leading to a more pitched battle over resources between larger cities and the countryside. The urban-rural haggling we've already seen, say, over dollars for schools or roads is destined to spread.
For her, rural Iowa 'was limiting'
That classic wholesome image of small-town Iowa may have fared well in the poll numbers, but not among everybody.
Take, for instance, Neala Arnold of Davenport, a 36-year-old librarian and teaching assistant with multiple degrees who's working on another at the University of Iowa. She grew up in the Quad Cities but also spent time across the state in Hawarden, a town of about 2,500 people where she felt like it was difficult for newcomers, including fresh waves of immigrants, not to be regarded with some degree of suspicion.
"The rural town I lived in was super friendly, but I felt like there were definite expectations for how you behaved and how you carried yourself," Arnold said. "And it was limiting."
She found it odd to be forced by the poll to choose between "envy" or "resentment" as her main emotion about rural Iowa. Maybe "pity" would have been the better term, she said — but not meant in a condescending way.
"I want to be in a place where there are people of different backgrounds, where there are cultural opportunities," she said. "I like being in a university town."
Despite the urban-rural fraying when it comes to our political polarization, we Iowans overall remain fairly optimistic about our future.
Sixty-five percent of us expect Iowa to become a better place in the next decade, compared to 22 percent who expect it to get worse. (Those 13 percent who are unsure have the luxury of telling the rest of us that they gave the correct answer no matter what unfolds.)
One caveat: Political affiliation matters here, too, in the Trump era. A thin majority of 51 percent of Democrats are convinced that things will improve, compared to 81 percent of Republicans, seemingly still aglow from the election.
More than a generation ago, 71 percent of Iowans in 1985 expected the state to improve in the next decade. Keep in mind that was the time when our state was being thrust into the heart of the farm financial crisis.
Maybe one lesson is that we should wring all the unity and optimism we can from these poll numbers as we struggle to improve farm and city alike.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson).
About the poll
The Iowa Poll, conducted July 9-13 for The Des Moines Register and Mediacom by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, is based on telephone interviews with 800 Iowans ages 18 or older. Interviewers with Quantel Research contacted households with randomly selected landline and cell phone numbers supplied by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were administered in English. Responses were adjusted by age and sex to reflect the general population based on recent census data.
Questions based on the sample of 800 Iowa adults have a maximum margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. This means that if this survey were repeated using the same questions and the same methodology, 19 times out of 20, the findings would not vary from the percentages shown here by more than plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Results based on smaller samples of respondents — such as by gender or age — have a larger margin of error.
Republishing the copyright Iowa Poll without credit to The Des Moines Register and Mediacom is prohibited.