The United States of the early 21st Century is an increasingly fragmented place with splits along political, economic, racial and cultural lines.
Traveling the country over the past four years for Patchwork Nation, a reporting project that I lead, I’ve seen the divides firsthand. I’ve witnessed a growing gulf between winners and losers in the geographic/demographic breakdown of 12 types of county we use to study the country.
You can get a crash-course in the shifting tectonics by studying the country’s urban/rural divide. In the most basic sense, there is an urban/suburban/exurban America that is headed in a relatively positive direction (the post 2008 slowdown notwithstanding) and another, more rural America that is falling behind. And that rift is something to keep in mind if you go see The Hunger Games at the local cineplex (or perhaps go see it again).
The Hunger Games is a phenomenon. In a little over a month, the film, based on the New York Times bestseller, has grossed $357 million. There are 37 million copies of the book in print.
America simply can’t get enough of The Hunger Games – and maybe that’s a good thing because key data suggest that the beloved dystopia of page and screen may be coming soon to a reality near you. In fact, some of it is already here.
For the uninitiated, the Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic future in a North American country named Panem. In this country a gleaming, futuristic capital harshly controls the people and resources of 12 poorer “districts.” Each year the capital commands each district to provide two young people for a televised battle to the death as punishment for a past rebellion.
The film is clever, combining tense action sequences with the ethos of dystopian epics like Blade Runner. But it also holds an eerie too-close-to-home familiarity to larger socio-economic trends in the country today.
I can see the rough outlines of Hunger Games America in Patchwork Nation’s 12 county types – not based around a single capital, but rather around regional big urban centers. The big city Industrial Metropolis counties (like Lake in Illinois or Philadelphia), their neighboring wealthy Monied Burbs and the more exurban Boom Towns, on one side. The aging, less-wealthy, more-rural Service Worker Centers, Emptying Nests, Evangelical Epicenters, Minority Central and Immigration Nation counties on the other.
The numbers tell the story.
Consider income. Last year, in The Atlantic, we compared median family incomes in our 12 county types in 1980 to incomes in 2010. The three more urbanized metro county types all saw their inflation-adjusted incomes rise over that period. All of them now have median incomes exceeding $51,000. The five more rural types all saw their incomes fall in adjusted dollars and all sat below $46,000.
Then look at education, increasingly the measure of whether one can succeed in the modern economy. All the county types we study increased their overall educational attainment, but at starkly different rates. In 1970, the share of college graduates in the more urban county types slightly exceeded the national average by between .4 to 3.3 percentage points. In 2010, that gap widened to between .7 to 7.4 percentage points. The rural locales? They were below the national average by about 4 to 5 percentage points in 1970. In 2010, they had slipped to 5 to 11 percentage points below.
These divides are growing and there aren’t a lot of ways to quickly fix them. There simply aren’t as many decent paying jobs in rural communities. As Rick Santorum often noted in his presidential campaign, many small towns were built around one large manufacturer. Now many of those are shuttered, the victim of both foreign competition and automation. As those jobs vanish, so do the opportunities to earn good wages without an advanced education. And all of this is happening as college costs rise.
It’s a troubling picture of divergence that feels disturbingly Hunger Games-esque.
Dante Chinni is the Project Director for PatchworkNation.org