By Nicholas Riccari
ROCKY FORD, Colo. (AP) — From where Peggy Sheahan stands, deep in rural Colorado, the last eight years were abysmal.
Otero County, where Sheahan lives, is steadily losing population. Middle-class jobs vanished years ago as pickling and packing plants closed. She’s had to cut back on her business repairing broken windshields to help nurse her husband after a series of farm accidents, culminating in his breaking his neck falling from a bale of hay. She collects newspaper clippings on stabbings and killings in the area — one woman’s body was found in a field near Sheahan’s farm — as heroin use rises.
“We are so worse off, it’s unbelievable,” said Sheahan, 65, a staunch conservative who plans to vote for Donald Trump.
In Denver, 175 miles to the northwest, things are going better for Andrea Pacheco. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the 36-year-old could finally marry her partner, Jen Winters, in June. After months navigating Denver’s superheated housing market, they snapped up a bungalow at the edge of town. Pacheco supports Hillary Clinton to build on President Barack Obama’s legacy.
“There’s a lot of positive things that happened — obviously the upswing in the economy,” said Pacheco, a 36-year-old fundraiser for nonprofits. “We were in a pretty rough place when he started out and I don’t know anyone who isn’t better off eight years later.”
But then, she doesn’t know Peggy Sheahan, and that makes sense: There are few divides in the United States greater than that between rural and urban places. Town and country represent not just the poles of the nation’s two political parties, but different economic realities that are transforming the 2016 presidential election.
Cities are trending Democratic and are on an upward economic shift, with growing populations and rising property values.
“The urban-rural split this year is larger than anything we’ve ever seen,” said Scott Reed, a political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who has advised previous GOP campaigns.
While plenty of cities still struggle with endemic poverty and joblessness, a report from the Washington-based Economic Innovation Group found that half of new business growth in the past four years has been concentrated in 20 populous counties.
“More and more economic activity is happening in cities as we move to higher-value services playing a bigger role in the economy,” said Ross Devol, chief researcher at the Milken Institute, an independent economic think tank. “As economies advance, economic activity just tends to concentrate in fewer and fewer places.”
That concentration has brought a whole host of new urban problems — rising inequality, traffic and worries that the basics of city life are increasingly out of the reach of the middle class. Those fears inform Democrats’ emphasis on income inequality, wages and pay equity in contrast to the general anxiety about economic collapse that comes from Republicans who represent an increasingly desperate rural America.
Meanwhile, rural areas have been especially slow to recover from the Great Recession that began in 2008: The most recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that, as of 2014, rural areas still had not regained all the jobs lost in the recession while metropolitan areas had. Three-quarters of what EIG classifies as the nation’s economically distressed ZIP codes are in rural areas. An Associated Press analysis of EIG data found that the economies of central cities suffer slightly less now than in 2000, while those of areas that house the majority of the nation’s rural population have grown worse.
“A lot of these communities are wondering what are we going to do and to some extent Donald Trump is talking to that,” said the Milken Institute’s Devol. “They’re not part of the modern global economy. They feel like they’ve been left behind through no fault of their own.”
Bill Hendren certainly feels left behind, which is why he’s a Trump backer.
“I don’t ever see a president caring about anyone who’s living paycheck to paycheck — if they did they’d have put the construction people back to work,” Hendren said. “Trump’s got the elite scared because he doesn’t belong to them.”
Hendren is effectively homeless. His pickup truck was stolen 18 months ago. In a city this would be less of a problem because he could get around by public transportation or even Uber, but in Otero County he can no longer perform the odd jobs at farms and houses that had supported him for years. He’s living temporarily rent-free in an old cottage on a small rural property that relies on a Franklin stove for heat.
Hendren, 55, once worked in Texas nightclubs but there’s nothing comparable in Otero County, where the largest town has a population of 6,900.
“There ain’t nothing here,” he said. “There’s nothing.”
Otero County and other far-flung rural areas face an uphill battle against geography. Economic development officials say businesses increasingly relocate to areas close to international airports, putting far-flung parts of the country at a natural disadvantage. For more than a generation, young people have streamed out of Otero County and the rest of rural America looking for higher education, upwardly mobile jobs and excitement in cities.
Otero economic development officials have lured some light manufacturing over the years; locals are excited that their first brewpub will open in the county seat of La Junta, while others in the hamlet of Manzanola are rehabbing downtown’s old, stately brick buildings.
Still, this checkerboard of alfalfa and melon fields hugging the Arkansas River as it tumbles across the high plains toward Kansas has lost more than a quarter of its population since its peak at 25,000 in 1950.
The years between 2010 and 2015 accounted for the first-ever net population loss for rural America — rural areas lost 33,000 residents annually until last year, when losses slowed to about 3,000, according to the Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the U.S. population grew by 12 million during that time, largely in metropolitan areas.
All the money pouring into cities is creating new problems. A Brookings Institute study last year found the nation’s largest cities have higher rates of income inequality than the nation as a whole. Predominantly city-based Democratic congressional districts have higher rates of inequality than Republican ones, according to a review of Census data. Rising rents and displacement of longtime residents is a typical urban worry from Seattle to Miami.
Richard Florida, a prominent urban theorist, argues that living in a booming city, with its high cost of living, can be tougher than living in a slowly depopulating rural area.
“People in urban and rural areas are living very different lives and experiencing the world very differently,” Florida said.
Rural areas have their occasionally homeless, like Bill Hendren, but the problem has soared in increasingly expensive cities like Denver. Shelters there report a sharp rise in population, even among working people who suddenly can’t find a place to rent.
Associated Press reporter Julie Bykowicz in Washington, D.C., and Claire Galafaro in West Virginia, and data journalist Angeliki Kastanis in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.