The USDA's Tinene Fraizer performs a routine health check on Booma, a dog that is in training to detect prohibited agricultural products at major ports of entry. The training facility is in Newnan, Georgia, part of the Atlanta metropolitan area. (USDA photo via Flickr)

There is a common line of thinking in the world of urban pundits that rural America is broken and that the best fix is to cut public investment and get folks out of there. Put that money someplace it can do some good. That means getting it to cities, and not just any cities, but the biggest and most productive economically.

In the last six months alone, the New York Times has given ink and pixels to this argument three times. Eduardo Porter, Paul Krugman, and now Amy Lui, vice president of the Brookings Institution and head of the organization’s metropolitan policy program, have all made similar cases for the need to increase urban public investment. The arguments are so frequent and similar they could almost be part of a campaign.

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In fact, they are. The New York Times and the Brookings Institution have been pushing the idea that rural America gets too much from the federal government for more than a decade. The Daily Yonder started publishing in 2007, and we observed Brookings’ rural divestment argument during the 2008 election cycle. It has been rolled out for each election since. And, as predictably as the presidential-candidate cotillion hits the dance floor in Iowa, Brookings and the Times have dusted off the white papers and offered another round of complaints about urban versus rural public funding.

Brookings’ argument about rural divestment has improved a bit over the years. In the past they argued that the federal government spends more on rural America per capita than it spends on urban America. Not true. Period. Full stop.

The last time the Economic Research Service looked at this figure, the federal government spent $285 more per capita in metro counties than it does in nonmetro ones.

When confronted on this, Brookings and the journalists who swallowed these alternative facts said what they meant was net spending. Urban areas receive less in federal spending than they pay into the federal revenue system.

In the most recent column Brookings appears to be softening its “rural-gets-an-unfair-share” argument just a bit. This time around Lui says that if we really want to help rural areas, the best thing to do is invest in major cities. Implied, but not stated, is the corollary that to do more for rural America, we need to do less for rural America.

Brookings’ concern for rural America is touching. “Kumbaya,” anyone?

There’s a large and unstated assumption in Brookings’ argument. Namely, that the government spends massive amounts of money on rural America that is misdirected or misused and ought to be going to big cities. We don’t see it.

Economically healthy cities do make for economically healthier suburbs and outlying nonmetropolitan counties. What little recovery has occurred in rural America since the recession has been clustered on the edges of metropolitan areas.  (There are exceptions to this rule, frequently tied to communities that have recreation, tourism, and retirement communities tied to natural amenities and public lands.) But generally, the bigger the metro, the better the recovery in the surrounding rural areas. Who could argue that building on economic success makes sense?

But there’s a large and unstated assumption in Brookings’ argument. Namely, that the government spends massive amounts of money on rural America that is misdirected or misused and ought to be going to big cities. We don’t see it.

Rural areas do get more per capita in income-security programs like Social Security, medical assistance, and welfare, the Daily Yonder found in 2008. But the same study found that urban areas get about a third more per capita on more discretionary expenditures like housing, environmental protection, regional development, community facilities, and transportation.

So where is this profligate rural spending? Perhaps these urban-centric thinkers mean the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose current $152 billion budget is second only to the Defense Department’s appropriation. Two thirds of USDA spending goes to nutrition programs, which are distributed based on income, not locality. (Shall we cut off food stamps for those who won’t move to a city?)

Another 7 percent of USDA spending goes to economic and agricultural research and food safety – spending that benefits major institutions in urban areas or goes to protect the public health of urban and rural people alike.

About a fifth of USDA spending goes to farm subsidy programs, crop insurance, and conservation. Some farmers (not most) benefit from these programs, but the biggest beneficiaries are multinational corporations who like the low prices for crops and livestock that the commodity programs promote. Farm and environmental groups have proposed common-sense reforms to this program, but this isn’t the focus of Brookings’ rural divestment push.

Only about 2 percent of the USDA budget goes to rural development programs like housing, utilities construction, and community facilities. And every farm-bill cycle the communities that depend on this funding have to fight to retain it. It’s not meant to level the economic playing field with urban America. It’s meant to provide the people who choose to, or must, live outside major cities with basics: some additional housing stock, some clean drinking water, an internet connection, electricity.

Strengthening U.S. cities will have positive effects on the economy of nearby rural areas. But arguing repeatedly that rural divestment is the way to get there is ineffective. Pitting urban against rural makes enemies out of potential allies. It reinforces political divisiveness. It guarantees that the best either rural or urban can hope for is the status quo. You can’t win an argument about increasing urban funding by advocating what amounts to rural sacrifice zones.

For such big thinkers, this is a small idea,

Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder. Bryce Oates covers rural affairs for the Daily Yonder.

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