• Most of Michigan’s residents are located in the state’s urban areas, but those urban areas comprise little of the state’s land area. Relative to the rural areas, the populations in urban communities are growing faster, have more diversity in race and ethnicity, and include more immigrants from a wider cross section of nations.
  • Both rural and urban areas have wealthy and less wealthy communities. While poverty is often associated with Michigan’s core urban communities with their deep levels of poverty and need, many rural communities have low income individuals that are frequent users of food stamps and Medicaid.
  • While there are some differences, such as more college graduates per capita, a greater frequency of crime per capita, and greater access to broadband Internet service in urban areas, going by the data, urban and rural Michigan have far more in common than not.

We often accuse one another of “living in a bubble,” but truth be told, almost everyone lives in a bubble, self-contained and of our own construction. In our communities, our friends, our information streams – it’s never been easier to surround ourselves with people like us, who see the world the way we do and draw similar conclusions from it.

It’s one thing to live one’s life this way, but it’s quite another when policymakers use those perceptions, about their own parts of Michigan but especially about the places they don’t live, to shape laws and regulations affecting everyone in the state.

With that concern in mind, the Citizens Research Council of Michigan set out to analyze the data describing Michigan’s local communities, to better understand the similarities and differences among them. In particular, we were interested in whether the characteristics of urban and rural communities explained residents’  different outlooks on social and public policy issues.

Like many states, Michigan is characterized has having most of its population congregated in small pockets of land and the balance of the population sprinkled over wide tracks of land area.  Three quarters of Michigan’s 9.9 million residents reside in communities that constitute 6.4 percent of the land area, while the remaining rural population is spread over 93.6 percent of the state’s land area.

Rural Michigan is, on average, older than urban Michigan. Rural residents are more likely to be military veterans, to be married, to own the homes they live in, and the length of time they live in their homes means that often they grow to be established members of their community.

The higher population density in urban areas is reflected in greater frequency of apartment living and more employment in service industries. In addition to being more racially diverse, more immigrants land in urban communities. Telephone and cable companies provide better access to high speed broadband connections in urban places.

We found no meaningful differences in participation in the preschool or public K-12 schools, but urban residents are more likely to attend college and college educated residents more frequently make their homes in urban areas.

You might have intuitively known many of those things. But here are other aspects of these populations that were not as intuitive.

Some rural areas of the state have poverty rates rivaling Michigan’s inner cities. The health status of residents in both urban and rural low-income communities are not good, resulting in higher incidence of disease and chronic conditions, increased mortality rates, lower life expectancies, and higher rates of pain and suffering. Like those urban communities, rural residents depend on food stamps and Medicaid programs to help with their nutrition and health care needs.

The obstacles to accessing places of employment, quality health care, and quality foods are shared by low-income urban and rural populations. Both would benefit from greater investments in transportation systems. The obstacles differ in scale, not type.

The data also point to long-standing, unaddressed issues for Michigan’s rural population.  The problems of Detroit, Flint, Muskegon, and other older cities are well-documented and resources have been devoted to revitalizing their neighborhoods, attracting new businesses, and other economic development activities.  Relative to those efforts, very little resources have been devoted to the rural communities.

The data show that urban expansion continues to erode land previously devoted to rural purposes.  In a state whose population is growing at a much slower pace than the national average, Michigan’s rural population is growing even slower, just 0.01 percent per year.  Neither natural population growth (births – deaths) nor immigration (new residents – departing residents) favor Michigan’s rural areas.

Workers in rural areas have a greater likelihood of employment in construction, manufacturing, and agriculture, industries that economists tell us have been harmed most significantly by globalization and automation over the past decade. The prospects for employment growth in these industries is not good.

Left unaddressed, the hollowing out of Michigan’s rural communities will create more problems. We already have difficulties attracting health care workers to rural communities. The prospects of attracting employers to rural communities is hampered by the lack of sufficient individuals with the talent to fill jobs. Left unabated, these issues will lead to further deterioration of per capita income and increased demand for programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Rural Michigan needs policies that address poverty and health disparities. These policies should focus on such things as education, employment, addressing chronic health conditions, and improving the availability of medical care.

There are obvious differences between Michigan’s urban and rural communities. But when we dig below the surface we see that both types of communities are dealing with many of the same problems. Policy solutions designed to remedy the ills of our urban communities may help our rural communities with little adjustment (and vice versa).

 

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