Misunderstanding between rural and urban residents goes back to the origins of our civilization — or at least to the Greek storyteller Aesop in about 600 B.C., with his parable about the country mouse and the city mouse.
Quick summary: A city mouse visits a friend in the country, and scoffs at the humble rural lifestyle, particularly the limited food choices. Country mouse accepts an invitation to experience a better life and scurries to the big city. Sure enough, country mouse discovers an abundance of amenities and excitements, and rich culinary options in the alleyways. But the unfamiliar dangers (mousetraps and lurking alley cats, for instance) are just too stressful. Whereupon country mouse hurries back to the farm fields, leaving us with the moral that a simpler life can also be a more peaceful life — or that mice from different places like different things, and that’s just as it should be.
We value this story because we are friends who happen to be a “city mouse” (Smith, resident of city or suburb in the Twin Cities or other large metro areas since 1973) and a “country mouse” (Hasbargen, lifelong resident of western Minnesota). In our long careers observing policymaking at the State Capitol, we also have witnessed far too much warfare between metro and rural mice. We are worried that it’s getting worse.
And we think we are qualified to offer a little advice about how all of us Minnesota mice can improve our policymaking and our lives, which we’ve distilled into three additional morals from Aesop’s tale.
Moral No. 1: Curb the metro condescension
The opening premise of the fable combines the country mouse feeling inferior and left behind with the city mouse’s air of superiority. The city mouse essentially asks: “What’s the matter with you?”
This reminds us of an influential book published in 2005 by journalist and historian Thomas Frank: “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.”
The basic tone conveyed by that title, and repeated endlessly by metropolitan progressives, is that rural people are gullible hayseeds, easily duped by corporate interests and right-wing ideologues on social issues, and slow to figure out how government investments and economic security programs are in their own best interests. Suburban conservatives, meanwhile, often come across with a similar attitude from a different angle, scoffing at a rural entitlement mentality and dismissing pleas for local government funding or rural bonding projects as money down a black hole, or as “pork.”
All too frequently at the Capitol, we’ve heard urbanites and suburbanites say things like these:
• “The rurals brag about being independent and self-sufficient, but they get more per capita from government than they pay in taxes, so they ought to just shut up and not rock the boat.”
• “Government ought to get out of the way. Let’s cut ’em all off, and let rural towns die a natural death.”
• “People don’t have a right to live where they want at our expense. If they feel left behind, they should get off their butts and move to where the jobs are.”
The content of Frank’s book is actually more respectful of rural folk than the title implies. Frank, a Kansan himself, faults Republicans for focusing too much on social issues and subtly appealing to racial biases, thus getting rural voters to support candidates who turn around and cut vital services or undermine the economic security of rural regions. But Frank similarly faults Democrats for tone-deafness and for ignoring rural interests in pursuit of policies and messaging that appeal to the larger demographic of younger, educated and affluent voters in the metro areas and suburbs.
We know that rural and Greater Minnesota faces economic challenges and chronically lags the Twin Cities on some key indicators. But metro rumors about rural demise, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. We believe the region as a whole is essentially healthy, much more interdependent with and valuable to the metropolitan economy than commonly realized, and worthy of more and smarter public investment.
Local rural grass-roots efforts to attract and retain business and newcomers, while improving community amenities and attractions, are popping up everywhere. Examples include the “Recharge the Range” initiative in northeastern Minnesota and the “Live Wide Open” project of the West Central Initiative Foundation. Dozens of other inspiring examples of local gumption in every corner of Greater Minnesota are cited in a recent series of essays written by Minnesota journalist Jay Walljasper for the McKnight Foundation.
Moral No. 2: Curb the rural resentment
Some pundits analyzing the 2016 election results have declared that they were all about racial animosity and xenophobia, the anti-gay and anti-feminist animus of white rural voters. Other pundits think it’s much more complicated than that, and we agree with the “many reasons” crowd.
To the degree the election was an expression of protest against neglect for rural priorities and against stagnation for rural folks near the middle and bottom of the economic ladder, we embrace the result.
All the same, we, too, are worried that too many country mice are excessively fearful and resentful of the Twin Cities — and that too many Minnesotans in all regions are unfriendly to newcomers and people of color.
All too often in rural Minnesota, we hear these kinds of statements:
• “All our tax money is going to Minneapolis welfare deadbeats, or fancy new trains out to the suburbs in the Twin Cities, and we get squat.”
• “Just leave us alone. Get the government off our backs and its hands off our wallets and our guns.”
• “These new immigrants and minorities expect everything for nothing. They are cutting in line in front of me, and they’re not at all like my hardworking great-grandparents from Norway.”
These wrongheaded sentiments, however, are more than offset by unheralded efforts across rural Minnesota to embrace newcomers, and in particular to reduce educational opportunity gaps for low-income children and kids of color in a steadily diversifying rural population.
A case in point is the Education Partnership Coalition, an alliance of homegrown rural and urban efforts to bear down on closing education disparities in their increasingly diverse communities, from birth all the way to postsecondary completion. These partnerships are now thriving in Austin, Red Wing, Northfield and St. Cloud, and they work closely in coalition with the inner-city initiatives the Northside Achievement Zone and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood.
This movement is spreading, and we can’t think of a better example of a “One Minnesota” strategy for mutual benefit.
Moral No. 3: Embrace our interdependence
A spate of bestselling nonfiction recently has tried to explain rural decline and especially the plight of poor rural whites. Among these are: “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010,” about the moral decline of an uneducated dysfunctional white culture in a New Lower Class.
Then there’s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” described by the New York Times as a “tough love analysis of the poor who love Trump.”
Yet another is “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.”
These works, along with increasingly overblown national media coverage about the disintegration of rural towns and small cities — often focused on Appalachia and Rust Belt towns in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania — may contain important truths. But they don’t reflect Minnesota’s reality.
Minnesota, for a variety of reasons, never qualified as a classic Rust Belt state. Our rural populations have always been better educated and better off in many other ways than those in Appalachia and the South. Recent statistics from the Center for Rural Policy Development, the Blandin Foundation’s annual Rural Pulse survey and other sources show that median incomes are rising, unemployment is declining, racial diversity is increasing, and that Greater Minnesota businesses are doing so well that they are reporting a shortage of skilled workers.
While political and media types often exaggerate the contrasts and hostility between country and city mice, most Minnesotans actually don’t live or think that way.
Most rural Minnesotans live within a half-day’s drive of the big downtowns, and they treasure their proximity to one of the nation’s most vibrant metropolises. Many, perhaps most, Twin Citians have roots and ongoing connections to farms and small towns and cabins, and they cherish their lakes and woods and prairies, choosing to vacation or even live part time in rural settings.
This interdependence runs deeply through economic life as well. A pilot study in 2011 by the group Minnesota Rural Partners Inc. quantified ways in which rural and metropolitan economies reinforce and feed each other. The report, “Estimating Rural and Urban Minnesota’s Interdependencies,” found that if rural Minnesota’s impressive cluster of manufacturing business realize a 6 percent increase in output, the urban area actually picks up 16 percent of all jobs gained and 38 percent of the additional output.
Lots of policy responses that reflect this inseparable interdependence already are on the table and have bipartisan and cross-regional support.
Working with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, the Greater Minnesota Partnership, and the Minnesota Asset Building Coalition, our organization, Growth & Justice, will be helping the Legislature elevate these rural and statewide responses as part of a Minnesota Rural Equity Project. These priorities include:
• Universal statewide high-speed internet access.
• Restoration of Local Government Aid funding.
• Expansive bonding and transportation bills.
• More rural focus for early childhood and child care assistance.
• Tax credits for low-income working families and housing incentives.
• New funding for nonprofits that serve emerging entrepreneurs.
With interdependence top of mind, and by reining in both condescension and resentment, our Legislature and all Minnesotans can start writing new and happier endings to the parable for all us country and city mice.
Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a policy center based in St. Paul focused on fostering more equitable economic growth. Vernae Hasbargen is a former executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association and a Growth & Justice board member.