Nick Nash lives in Pendleton, where he teaches philosophy at Blue Mountain Community College

Rural, urban – what does and doesn’t divide us

By Cara Mico, Assistant Editor

Nash, Nicholas, Adjunct Philosophy Instructor at Blue Mountain Community College, facilitated an Oregon Humanities Conversation Project in Tillamook on September 20, 2022. The conversation focused on understanding the urban rural divide and was well attended by equal numbers of people identifying as either rural, urban, or ‘rurban.’

“We live in a time of increasing polarization that often correlates to divides between urban and rural regions in our state. This polarization is so extreme that it often seems like the two sides may have completely different experiences of the world.”

This divide wasn’t as clear in the room.

Some who identified as rural residents felt that the divide was economic with producers living primarily in rural areas and consumers living in urban areas. Urbanists felt that this ignored the economic engine of urban areas. Others felt like the similarities between the two groups were largely manufactured and most people have more in common than not.

The biggest source of disagreement came from what actions needed to be taken to address issues facing both communities.

As one attendee put it, “we may agree that family is important but disagree on what the word family means.”

Other questions posed to the audience included how does the urban/rural divide affect the ways we relate to each other as Oregonians, what is the urban/rural divide, and how do we understand it, and how does this divide affect our day-to-day lives, our experiences of being governed, and of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The conversations were thoughtful but left many with more questions than answers. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the topics brought up by attendees.

The rural-producer vs. the urban consumer.

According to data from Oregon REAP, Tillamook County’s GDP was around a billion dollars. By comparison, Multnomah County GDP was almost $58 billion. So per capita, the average resident of Multnomah County produces almost twice that of the average resident of Tillamook County.

In both counties, by far the largest economic driver is real estate and insurance services, followed by manufacturing. Agriculture, including both farming and forestry, was high in both counties, with more money coming from agriculture in Multnomah county, despite being a smaller land area.

So the idea that rural areas are primarily producers while urban areas are populated by consumers is not as black and white as some make it seem, but it’s a concern repeated by many. The division is based on misinformation or incomplete data.

The topic of what defines a family is much more fraught.

There isn’t as much concrete data to examine. There are national polls, the only localized publicly available dataset that comes close to providing enough information is voting data.

Although people vote for candidates for myriad reasons, and most people don’t agree with their selected candidate all of the time, national presidential campaigns can provide insight into values based thinking.

So let’s look at voter data from the general election.

In the 2020 general election in Tillamook, turnout was historically high with 82% of registered voters casting a ballot. Trump (R) received 8,354 votes and Biden (D) received 8,066 votes. There were over 350 votes for libertarian, progressive, and green candidates.

In Multnomah and Clackamas counties, the race didn’t come close. Trump (R) received 82,995 votes and Biden (D) received 367,249 in Multnomah, in Clackamas Trump (R) 110,509 and Biden (D) received 139,043.

There were almost three times as many Republican voters in Multnomah County than the entire population of Tillamook County.

In other words there are more people in Portland that are aligned with republican values (“family”) than in the coastal rural county in its entirety.

Looking back at 2016 Trump (R) received 67,954 and Clinton (D) received 292,561 votes from Multnomah county voters, and in Tillamook Trump (R) received 6,538 votes to Clinton’s 5,768.

This is hardly a divide. In fact it looks like there are greater differences between residents of urban areas than there are between rural and urban residents.

Although there is much to be said about wealth, faith, and nepotism regarding all three candidates, there couldn’t be three people with more diametrically opposed platforms and policies. Clearly this division is ideological and not based on something as simple as rural vs. urban.

But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t clear differences between these populations.

Firstly, the amount of public resources available per person is much less than in urban populations. It takes a lot to keep the roads paved and the lights on in a county three times the size of Multnomah County with a 10th of the population. The rural economy in Tillamook relies on urban tourists looking to get away from the city. So in that way the rural economy is supported by their urban neighbors.

Secondly, connected to available resources, the demographics of rural populations are skewed towards middle aged adults. For better or worse, the best universities and the highest paying jobs are located in some of the world’s biggest cities, and while remote opportunities are becoming more common, generally speaking, once Tillamook County children become adults, many move to other places because they either can’t afford to live here on their own and/or move to a larger area to meet people, continue their education, or find gainful employment. This same pattern holds true for older adults as well, those with special care needs often find themselves needing to move to be closer to better health care and/or more affordable housing and cost of living.

Looking at family values, providing for a family during all stages of life isn’t something that rural areas are typically known for. The resources to care for people at all life stages are limited in rural areas.

The national conversation tends to arbitrarily paint Main Street USA in one color forgetting that the flag has three. Rural populations are often called out for being poorly educated (looking at some of the retirees in Tillamook County this is patently false), racist (also largely false), and backwards thinking (looking at you Near Space and all the great innovations around wave tech out of OSU). Most humans on the planet have deep connections to both rural and urban places.

Perhaps the division is real, perhaps it isn’t, but judging by the numbers, there aren’t a lot of actual differences between rural and urban dwellers.

We want to hear what you have to say about the “urban/rural divide” – send us your comments and responses to