Every bubble distorts our understanding of America
I always knew that being white, male, straight, and educated meant that I was living in a bubble that distorted my perspective on the world. But it wasn’t until Election Day, when 62 million (as of 11/22/2016, according to USA Today) of my fellow Americans voted for a fascist (or proto-fascist) that I realized just how distorted my view of America had actually become. Since then I’ve started second-guessing myself on a host of issues that I thought were universal American ideals that have, it seems, turned out to merely be universal among my friends and family.
One of the mental adjustments I’m still trying to make is to recognize that 62 million people didn’t care that Donald was spouting rhetoric that was anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, racist, sexist, and homophobic rhetoric. 62 million people were OK with bigotry and borderline incitement of violence, behaviors and values that I thought were fundamentally un-American, values defined by the United States Constitution itself1. But while I’m certainly living in a bubble, I’m not the only one. The fact that many of Donald’s supporters are also living in their own bubbles was brought home to me in an NPR story I listened to on my way into work a few days ago.
The story was about Vigo County, Indiana has been a presidential election bellweather for most of the last century. Asma Khalid, a reporter who has covered the intersection of demographics and the election, interviewed Bernard Gibson at a store where he was picking up heaters to keep his baby chickens from freezing this winter. Gibson had this to say about the people of Vigo County:
These are real people here. These are not New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, you know, these are – these are real people that live every day from hand to hand and have – just have to work to make a living and everything else.
Gibson’s view that people living on the coasts and in big cities are somehow not “real” people, who are somehow not living paycheck to paycheck (“hand to hand”), who don’t have to work to making a living, tells me that he’s living in as much of a bubble as I am.
See, there are actually more urban people than rural people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. I dug into the USDA’s data on rural (nonmetro) poverty that was published in September 2016. According to their latest data (for 2014, collected from the Census Bureau among other places), the poverty rate in nonmetro counties nationwide was higher than in metro counties, 18.1% to 15.1%. But there are only 44 million people living in nonmetro counties, as opposed to 266 million people living in metro counties. That means that there are about 40 million people living in poverty in metro area counties vs. 8 million in nonmetro counties.
When I looked at Vigo county, I found that it was classified as a metro county (associated with a metro area of 250,000 people or fewer), something that I didn’t think the folks that Khalid interviewed would agree with. So I reran the numbers with counties like Vigo reclassified a rural county. In this case, the number of rural people from 44 to 72 million and the number of urban people dropped from 266 to 239. But the poverty rate doesn’t change much – 17.6% for rural vs. 14.9 for urban. That’s about 13 million people living in poverty in rural areas vs. 35 million in urban areas.
Unemployment and participation in the labor force in rural areas is much worse than it is in urban areas, but again, since there are so many more urban people, the total number of people affected in urban counties is much higher than in rural counties.
And while there are all kinds of jobs in rural areas where “you have to work to make a living,” with the implication that anyone who doesn’t have a labor-intensive job isn’t really working, there are all kinds of labor intensive jobs in urban areas too – construction, landscaping, janitorial services, and shipping/receiving to name a few.
Finally, some of us who think for a living (because as an engineer, that’s essentially what I do) have been involved in creating tools that have dramatically improved life for people in rural America. Satellites monitor the health of crops (via remote sensing of chlorophyll or water content) and track weather systems to help guide planting and harvest. Satellite and ground-based monitoring systems help determine when it’s safe to do controlled burns and when a controlled burn is more likely to turn into a wildfire, and they save lives in the case of wildfire by helping the police and fire departments determine how the fire is likely to behave and what areas need to be evacuated. Doppler radar helps protect people from dangerous thunderstorms and identify probable tornado-spawning storms. And so on.
We all live in bubbles created by the people we choose to associate with, where we live, our ethnicity and gender, our education, where we get our news, and the like. As I said above, the results of the election pointed out just how much of a bubble I’ve been living in, and how distorted my view of America became as a result. But Gibson and pretty much everyone who thinks like he does is also living in a bubble that distorts their vision of America. It’s just a different bubble.
The hard part is to figure out how to pop our various bubbles or at least make them distort reality less.
1. Values that stand in opposition to the 1st Amendment (freedoms of religion, speech, the press), the 4th Amendment (secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, probable cause), 5th Amendment (due process), 14th Amendment (equal protection of the laws),15th Amendment (right to vote irrespective of race), and the 19th Amendment (universal suffrage).