Closing a divide with respect, not numbers

Lessons learned from The Oregon Way community.

The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis recently pointed out that while the state’s economy has shrunk (a bad thing) so has the urban-rural divide, at least in an economic sense (a good thing). The numbers demonstrate that the divide has definitely diminished (as seen by the graph below).

In a break with economic recoveries necessitated by previous recessions, the local economies in rural parts of the state “are now doing somewhat better over the entire cycle to date than the large urban centers in the valley,” according to the number crunching of Josh Lehner, an economist in the Office. This convergence of economic fates is likely short-lived though. Lehner reported that:

Long-run economic growth is primarily about the number of workers and how productive each worker is. Population gains are strongest in urban areas, which should propel these regional economies to faster growth in the years ahead. Additionally, urban areas, have larger concentrations in the industries expected to grow the fastest over the entire cycle than do many rural areas.

What the stats fail to convey is that even if the economic forecast for the regions were equivalent there would still be an urban-rural divide. Why? Because economic well-being is only one part of what’s hindered cross-Cascade communities from forming. The other, arguably more important, source of strain is social status.

Jobs are one thing, respect is another

After another election that defied expectations, political scientists have realized the strength of a relatively simple syllogism:

  • Major premise: people care what other people think of them.

  • Minor premise: if people think members of certain party look down upon them, then they’ll support the other party.

  • Conclusion: how people are perceived has political consequences.

Now, there’s a race for researchers to determine just how large these consequences have been and will be. The early results suggest that repairing cultural divides cannot be reduced to simple refrains like “It’s the economy, stupid.” Though economic support and opportunity are obviously core parts of individual well-being, an even more nuanced and complicated factor is at play: real and perceived social status. It’s this factor that has the largest role in shaping our ability to form more diverse, inclusive, and collaborative communities.

Here’s a quick review of what some leading thinkers have written on why we should pay more attention to social status:

  • “Hierarchal ranking, the status classification of different groups — the well-educated and the less-well educated, white people and Black people, the straight and L.G.B.T.Q. communities — has the effect of consolidating and seeming to legitimize existing inequalities in resources and power. Diminished status has become a source of rage on both the left and right, sharpened by divisions over economic security and insecurity, geography and, ultimately, values.” (Thomas Edsall, emphasis added)

  • “We need to appreciate that status, like resources and power, is a basic source of human motivation that powerfully shapes the struggle for precedence out of which inequality emerges.” (Cecilia L. Ridgeway)

There’s also an increasing focus on what’s referred to as “last place aversion,” the anxiety induced by the thought of falling further down the social ladder.

What’s the stimulus plan for remedying social status-induced divides?

Edsall listed three factors that are exacerbating status as a “source of rage”: economic insecurity, geography, and values.

Economic security is beyond the scope of this post, but I trust that folks like Mitch Daugherty of Built Oregon, Adam Krynicki of OSU Cascades, and Caroline Cummings of RAIN will continue their great work to help entrepreneurs around the state create innovative products, new jobs, and new opportunities.

Geography will be a subject for another article because it’s near and dear to my heart. In another life, I launched and help lead Passport Oregon — a nonprofit that connects youth from “undernatured” communities to the outdoor wonders that make this state such a unique place to call home. We need more of these programs — intentionally exposing Oregonians of all ages to different parts of the state — if we are are going to overcome the literal and figurative barriers posed by having a mountain range bisect your state.

On values, there’s no shortage of speculation out there about how urban folks see rural folks and vice versa. Here’s a partial summary of some of the commonly-repeated stereotypes:

Rural folks feel like they're looked down on by those sophisticated urban elites who consider them uneducated rubes.

[U]rban folks are the targets of moral snobbery. Particularly in politics, we're constantly told that rural areas and small towns are morally superior to cities and suburbs, that the people who live in the "heartland" are the real Americans, the ones who have "values," while the rest of us just have opinions.

It’s likely that you or a friend or a friend of a friend has repeated one or more of those stereotypes. Broad assumptions about the values held by folks you don’t know is never a good idea. Yet, these assumptions are perpetuated in the media again and again. Correcting those stereotypes is a problem that can and must be addressed. But we should avoid expecting that we will ever reach a point of complete values alignment.

As long as we’re human and live in different geographies that expose us to different cultural influences and economic realities, we will have different values. The problem is really about respect and tolerance. As the researchers outlined above, what peeves people most is being talked down to, belittled, and made lesser. No one likes to think that they are on the bottom rung, whether it’s the economic ladder or some sort of moral hierarchy.

How, then, do we foster respect? I don’t think there’s one answer but based on reading the posts in this blog, a lot of Oregonians have a few solutions in mind:

  • Christina deVillier discussed getting to know your neighbors and understanding that sometimes the solutions to our biggest problems have to start with small conversations with those we think (often incorrectly) have different views than us.

  • Brenda Smith outlined the importance of simply listening to other people; it just so happens that an inclusive table that allows all participants to speak is often the most productive kind of gathering.

  • Adam Davis shared his two cents (worth a nickel) on how sharing stories with one another can become a source of connection.

So, will you have lunch with me?

From the lessons learned from these great writers, I’m starting my own effort to listen to and talk with Oregonians from around the state. It’s called the PB & Joy project.

Over the course of 2021, I am scheduling 100 different *Zoom* lunches with Oregonians to see what they think makes this state so special.

Will you sign up for a slot?

Through virtually breaking bread together, I hope to uncover what we can all do to be more respectful of our fellow Oregonians and more appreciative of the values we share (as well as those we disagree on).


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