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Study: 60 percent of rural millennials lack access to a political life

A rural highway in Ottumwa, Iowa on Jan. 27, 2017. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Like older voters, young ones were divided by the 2016 presidential election.

A recent study of millennial voters by Tufts University found that young people had starkly different opinions about politics and civic institutions based on race, gender and social class.

One important dividing line separated rural and urban youth.

Rural youth defied a stereotypical notion of young voters as uniformly liberal. Exit polls conducted by news media on Election Day showed that although 55 percent of voters under 30 nationwide supported Hillary Clinton, young rural voters supported Donald Trump by 53 percent.

Researchers at Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) have studied young voters and their civic and political development for over 15 years, but this urban-rural gap took us by surprise. We set out to learn where this stark difference in opinion came from.

It’s not just about geography

Using data from CIRCLE’s survey of 1,000 millennials after the 2016 election, we wanted to find out how living in a rural area could potentially result in different levels of political involvement and opinions, leading to such different candidate choice.

In other words, did young rural voters seek an outsider candidate like Trump because they are more politically alienated and skeptical about government and the value of their own political involvement?

Approximately 14 percent of young voters live in rural areas. While not huge, this group is roughly the size of the black youth voting bloc. But unlike black youths, rural youth voting habits have been rarely studied.

So just what does living in a “rural area” mean? Exit polls classify “rural” by small population (fewer than 50,000) and location outside of metro areas. Of course, however, there is more to rural identity than geography. Sociological research suggests that it is also about power and access to institutions that benefit individuals such as youth and recreation programs, nonprofit and civic organizations. It’s also about the closeness of relationships between residents. That said, rural areas are not all the same and they face different challenges and opportunities.

We therefore decided to classify the millennials in our survey by access to opportunities for building interpersonal connections and by their civic and political engagement.

Youth with access to no resources, or only one, were classified as living in Civic Deserts. “Civic Desert” is a new term that we coined to describe places characterized by a dearth of opportunities for civic and political learning and engagement, and without institutions that typically provide opportunities like youth programming, culture and arts organizations and religious congregations.

Here’s what our study found:

1. The majority of rural youth live in Civic Deserts

Civic Deserts can be in any type of geography, but they are most common in rural areas.

Sixty percent of rural youth live in a Civic Desert compared to just about 30 percent of their suburban and urban peers. That means rural youth face a significant civic disadvantage. They have fewer opportunities to observe, participate and learn about civic and political engagement.

Just like millions of Americans who live in a food desert, an area that lacks access to healthy food choices, a majority of rural youth experience Civic Desert and lack access to meaningful civic engagement options.

2. Civic Deserts may contribute to alienation

As UC Berkeley Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote in her recent book “Strangers in Their Own Land,” residents of a community experiencing a severe lack of access to government resources, opportunities for advancement and a decline in community cohesion may develop a sense of alienation from and distrust in aspects of civic life, such as community organizations, government agencies – and even neighbors.

Our analysis indicates that youth living in a Civic Desert are generally less experienced in civic and political life and largely disengage from politics; have few, if any, opinions about current affairs; and are less likely to believe that civic engagement like voting and civic institutions – from Congress to local nonprofits – can benefit the community. They were also less likely to help others in informal ways, like helping neighbors and standing up for someone who is being treated unfairly.

The factors that normally predict political engagement, such as education and income, are not strong enough to negate the effect of living in a Civic Desert.

3. Voting for Trump related to many factors

Coming back to our initial reaction to the rural-urban vote divide, did Civic Deserts drive young people to vote for Donald Trump?

During the 2016 presidential election, young people who live in Civic Deserts were less likely to vote compared to others with more civic resources.

If they did vote, they were slightly more likely to choose Trump than those with better access to civic resources. However, supporting Trump was related to many other things as well, including being white, male and not having a four-year college degree.

In our data, millennial support for Trump was particularly high among whites who live in Civic Deserts (39 percent) and rural areas (43 percent), compared to whites living in urban areas with high access (17 percent).

Additionally, these findings suggest that it is incorrect to assume that young Trump voters only live in rural areas. Instead, many of his supporters lived in urban and suburban areas where they lack access to civic resources.

Although many factors attribute to young people’s choice of a presidential candidate, one key explanation appears to be a sense of alienation from politics, which is a common phenomenon in Civic Deserts where young people have little to no opportunity to develop as active citizens. Civic Deserts are most prevalent in rural areas, suggesting it is important to strive for expanded access to civic engagement opportunities in these areas.

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