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Abraham Lincoln famously said “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. Post-election reporting in 2016 and following the 2018 midterms highlighted the fissures in our proverbial house: the media displayed a plethora maps showing the U.S. as red versus blue, tracking largely along urban and rural lines and between coastal and heartland America. These two groups strongly disagree on a wide range of issues, from immigration and government services to business development and environmental regulation, and values.
Where are these fissures coming from, and how do we bridge the ever widening gap? A study by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 70 percent of rural America feels estranged from the values of people living in urban centers, and more than 60 per cent say federal efforts to improve living standards either make things worse or have little impact.
Big “superstar” cities are seeing economic growth, leaving the rest of America behind. According to Aaron Rennis, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, the things that drive success in America’s big financial sectors like New York City and Silicon Valley are the very things that worry rural America: immigration, foreign trade and globalization.
The rural-urban divide is not just an American phenomenon—it is a worldwide occurrence. For the first time in history, more people live in cities than in rural areas. In many ways this is positive, but the tipping of the scales has created a global discord between urban and rural areas; urban Londoners were shocked by Brexit, Tokyo’s urban population swells as its rural population shrinks, and Indians are flocking to cities, leaving its rural population poor and sick.
In the U.S., the discussion around poverty and health often center on urban areas, but poverty and poor health is just as high in rural areas. Research shows that the rural-urban poverty gap is complex, and can’t be explained merely by poverty levels, education levels or available jobs and industries in the area. Attention must be paid to the entire structure of the rural and urban economies and their communities.
One thing is for sure–abandoning rural areas and leaving them destitute and in despair is certainly not an option. So how do we in philanthropy and the social sector move the needle?
To fix the problem, we must know the causes and effects. The rural urban divide is widening, not only in politics, but in economic mobility and funding. We’d be remiss to treat this as a zero sum game, with one side as a winner and the other as a loser, but we’d also be remiss to dismiss rural issues in their entirety. As leaders, we must listen to leaders on the ground, and examine whether we are widening the rift or bridging the gap.
To that end, we interviewed 47 community and foundation leaders for our book, Big Impact: Insights & Stories from America’s Nonprofit Leaders. In addition to the insights they shared with us from their personal and professional lives, we discussed the vital role the social sector plays in public policy. We asked, “What role should the social sector play in helping to find common ground between cities and small town America?”
“The challenge to me is helping people understand that our interests are intertwined. This is important work in the social sector and I think we can accomplish that by helping people understand that our self-interest is connected to the well-being of others. The development of empathy, compassion, and concern for your neighbor is something the social sector can and should be working on.”
“What we saw in this  election was a true disconnect in the values we have in this country and how we want to build on them. I think a key role would be to fund cross-sector convening and opportunities to bring those worlds together, and to be very conscious about what’s happening in the rest of the country when we live on the coast. I think we have to be conscious about how we talk about rural communities because language is important, and there’s been a real tear-down of how much we respect who lives where, and I don’t think that’s fair.”
“I think that sharpening our focus on what we’re for rather than what or who we’re against is one way to start. I’d start by reminding people of our common story. People have shared aspirations to have access to decent education, work, and healthcare for themselves and their children. I think there’s a huge amount of regional dependence between cities and suburbs, even in the more rural areas. We should try to strengthen those links where they exist in a more intentional, physical way. It’s important to disaggregate the data.”
[bookmark: _gjdgxs]Additionally, Pennington pointed to the work of economist Raj Chetty, whose data is broken down by counties, cities, zip codes, and neighborhoods across the United States. She said, “You can see which regions promote mobility from the bottom to the top. We need to think with less generality and learn more about real particulars and what’s happening to the mobility in specific places. It’s the particularity of Chetty’s data that’s so powerful, so we’re helping to fund the research and we’ll definitely use that data.”
The urban-rural divide is one of the most vexing societal challenges we face. Complex problems require complex solutions, but most of all they require all parties involved to feel heard and understood. If we are to bridge the divide, it must be from a standpoint of listening and compassion.
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