The Great Divide

I was recently asked to participate on a panel this weekend at Oregon State University which will be discussing the following three questions:

  • How would you characterize the relationship between urban and rural Oregonians?
  • How/what issues should the urban-rural relationship change?
  • Is the effort worth it?

Most of my life has been spent wandering back and forth between rural and urban Oregon; so I should be uniquely qualified to answer these questions.  I know there are different interests and points of view in the various places I’ve lived and worked over the past five decades, but I’ve felt equally at home in Eugene and Oakridge or Portland and La Grande.  It’s fair to say rural Oregon is generally more conservative than its urban counterpart, and people do not earn as much money in the less populated parts of the state.  Despite these generalizations, most of the people I’ve met are able to look beyond their personal geography and do not harbor much ill will toward someone who lives in a different place.  The differences between Oregonians and Californians are, of course, a different matter.

I worry more about where urban-rural relationships might go than I do about where they are now.  History documents many examples of leaders rising to power on the wings of prejudice, divisiveness, and blame.  If rural people are led to believe that urban prosperity comes at their expense, or vice versa, the ability to cooperate, share resources, and solve problems will be compromised.  Conversely, as long as urban and rural residents are willing to take the time to understand each other’s interests, it will be clear that they have much more in common than they do in differences.  Urbanites should be concerned, for example, about higher unemployment, lower incomes, and declining prosperity in rural communities, just as rural residents should worry about the health of cities.  Even though some rural residents complain about Portland’s political and economic statewide dominance, I think the vast majority want the metropolitan area to thrive. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously observed, “The rich are different,” to which Ernest Hemingway was said to have replied, “Yeah, they have more money.”  My policy recommendation for how Oregon should be dealing with the current prosperity gap between urban and rural places is to acknowledge the wisdom of Hemingway’s retort and invest more resources in places that don’t have enough and need more.  Some of those places are rural, but there is no shortage of impoverished neighborhoods in urban areas.  I once attended a conference where I listened to an African-American woman from Oakland, California, tell about her experiences trying to make her neighborhood a decent place to live.  I was struck by how similar her story was to what I was trying to do in Oakridge, Oregon.  I later discovered a similar comparison between a relatively underserved rural area and an urban neighborhood when I was trying to help bring broadband telecommunications service to La Grande.  The “Digital Divide” turned out be more of a matter of corporate return on investment than an issue of geography or population density.

I would answer the final question posed to our panel with a simple “yes.”  Understanding and documenting the nature and extent of the differences between rural and urban Oregon offers the potential of narrowing the economic gap.   I believe it is an appropriate and necessary role for the state to aggregate resources and invest them in places, rural or urban, where there is a need.  Capacity building through technical assistance to small businesses and communities, targeted infrastructure improvement, and incentives to employers are important tools, as are appropriate natural resource management practices and land use regulations. The nature, quality, and extent of our collective investment will, in my opinion, be the keys to bridging the great divide.