Kate Cohen, writing in The Washington Post, described the deep irony of upstate New Yorkers celebrating Memorial Day by singing “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy” at the top of their voices.
This nation’s unrealistic bias for small towns and agricultural spaces is depriving both small towns and megalopolis regions of the government infrastructure both need to flourish.
Americans love the rural past of their imaginations. Sometimes events, like Memorial Day in New York or the Fourth of July in Hailey, actually generate the simple joy of kids watching fire engines or adults belting out familiar refrains.
That America doesn’t exist anymore. It hasn’t for a century. America became 50-50 urban/rural in 1920 and never looked back. The fastest growing communities are the biggest cities. Los Angeles has grown from under 2.5 million in 1960 to 3.8 million now.
Too much public policy, however, fails to recognize reality. In the real United States of 2019, 82 percent of the population is urban. Problems aren’t one size and solutions can’t be either.
Health care offers that object lesson. In the past decade, 100 rural hospitals have closed, leaving many of the 18 percent of the nation who live in those small communities without medical services.
Most patients are on Medicare or Medicaid or have no insurance at all. Doctors with six-figure student debts are unable to accept the compensation levels affordable in small towns, even though some might actually prefer to spend a career living among people they know outside the office.
As long as decision makers hold onto the myth of a rural, small-town America, the country will not replace the crumbling-hospital-in-every-community solution of the past with tele-medicine, medical school debt forgiveness, helicopter ambulances and other solutions appropriate for scattered rural populations.
The same misaligned thinking distracts from developing appropriate urban solutions. The myth of crime-ridden, decaying, overcrowded cities implies more police than arts programs. Density and diversity are resisted rather than recognized as what people actually like about cities.
If Americans learn to truly embrace the urban identity of the United States, public policy, including critical budgets, will be better aligned to produce effective solutions that everyone can celebrate and maybe even write songs about.