Urban-Rural Political Alliances Hurt Cities

While House Republicans have stripped food stamp benefits from the farm bill to get enough votes to pass the bill’s agricultural supports,  the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program may be added back into the bill in conference with the Senate. The farm bill get its strength because it aligns the interests of urban Democrats and rural Republicans in Congress, facilitating log-rolling where the majority of congressmen are willing to support the bill because it directly benefits their districts.

While the food stamp program has in the past made up a large portion of the bill’s costs, with these these funds flowing primarily to urban residents, urbanists should be leery of the urban-rural alliance that facilitates continued support for the farm bill. Aside from the primary cost drivers including nutrition programs and farm supports, the bill also includes measures like rural broadband and rural utilities services loans designed to subsidize living in areas where providers do not find it profitable to provide services.

Unlike SNAP benefits, which are available for rural and urban residents based on income, rural infrastructure support is allocated to locations rather than individuals. Providing subsidies based on location is hugely attractive to Congress because it allows members to provide concentrated benefits directly to their constituents. However, subsidizing individuals’ choices to live in areas where building infrastructure is inefficient limits economic growth potential. Cities provide better job opportunities and are centers of innovation, so policies that subsidize rural living don’t make sense.

While the farm bill is a clear example of an urban-rural alliance that facilitates these subsidies, many programs similarly subsidize infrastructure in rural areas from USPS providing flat-rate delivery to the Essential Air Service program that subsidizes service to 163 airports that would otherwise not be profitable. Because all senators represent states with rural post offices and most have constituents who use airports in the EAS program, the political system is set up to maintain these subsidies that lead some people to choose to maintain a rural lifestyle.

This isn’t an argument that city residents aren’t getting their fair share of federal spending; in fact, residents of urban counties received more per capita spending than those is rural counties (link to 2010 data, the most recent available). Rather, urbanization is a process that provides benefits both to those who move to cities and those who live there through greater economic innovation and cultural diversity, so the political gains of rural subsidies come with high costs. As Ed Glaeser explains, urbanization is a key part of economic growth within the United States, with people in cities being more productive than those who don’t. “the three largest metropolitan areas producing 80% of GDP but containing only 13% of population.”

Rural living has its own set of advantages that individuals should be free to choose if they like, but this lifestyle choice should not be subsidized by those who choose to live in cities and suburbs. Subsidies should follow individuals rather than locations to avoid discouraging urbanization.

  • CityBeautiful21

    The prior author in the linked piece has bungled Glaeser’s message. There is no way that the NYC, LA, and Chicago MSAs produce 80% of US economic activity. The Wikipedia list of cities by GDP put these places at about $2.5 billion of GDP in an economy of $15 billion. This is about 18% of the economy produced by 13-14% of the people. This validates the returns to density thesis, and does not invalidate the point about rural-urban alliances being mostly beneficial for the rural folks. Still, please check the numbers next time.

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  • Emily Washington

    Thanks for pointing that out — that statistic is clearly inaccurate. Now corrected.

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