13 February 2006

The Myth Of Urban Inefficiency

Cities are more energy efficient than rural areas, and run schools with far fewer administrative costs than rural areas as well.

Consider this bit of information gathered in an effort to point out the problems with the "65% solution" initiative being pushed right now in Colorado that would call for 65% of school district spending to be spent on the classroom:

Only 32 of Colorado's 178 school districts currently spend 65% of their budget "in the classroom" and those are the larger school districts. Small rural school districts have greater transportation costs especially with the rising cost of gasoline. A rural school district with only a couple hundred students simply can't offer transportation to school, provide a warm safe learning environment with a hot lunch program, a custodian, a secretary, a principal with 65% of the budget being required to be spent "in the classroom". I suppose we could require parents to drive their kids to school, pack a cold lunch, or we could require teachers to clean the school building after school hours. Considering the fact that 143 of our 178 school districts are classified as small or rural, this 65% initiative will harm, not help, most of our school districts.

People sometimes get the idea that because urban school districts have huge administrative office buildings that they devote more of their budgets to administrative costs, but this simply isn't so.

I also recently compared the ranking of states in terms of energy use per capita, with the percentage of the population that lives in urban areas (Table 27). Almost every state that is at least 80% urban is at the bottom of the per capita energy consumption (82.5% urban Texas, which is #5, and 80.1% Delaware, which is #17, are the outliers). Almost every state that is less than 60% urban is at the top of the list (59.3% urban New Hampshire, which is #43, 38.2% urban Vermont, which is #42, and 51.9% urban South Dakota, which is #30 and uses only about two-thirds of the energy per capita of North Dakota, are outliers).

Obviously weather also has some impact, as does proximity of oil supplies, apparently, but it is worth comparing the top ten states with the highest per capita energy use:

50. Hawaii
49. Arizona
48. Rhode Island
47. New York
46. Florida
45. California
44. Connecticut
43. New Hampshire
42. Vermont
41. Massachusetts

(Colorado is number 40).

to the ten states with the highest per capita energy use:

10. Maine
9. Alabama
8. Indiana
7. Kentucky
6. Texas
5. North Dakota
4. Montana
3. Wyoming
2. Lousiana
1. Alaska

Of course, high energy use and high administrative costs associated with rural living are hardly the only examples of this phenomena. Rural America would collapse without urban subsidies that make living there affordable (despite the low housing prices found in rural America). For example, rural landline phone service is subsidized, as are grain, soybean and cotton farming (which has very little impact on consumer prices as so little of the cost of the products we purchase at grocery stores and in clothing shops goes to the farmer). In Colorado, at least, urban and rural residents alike pay equally for law enforcement protection from the Sheriff who serves principally unincorporated areas (even though residents of cities must also pay for their own police protection). Postal service, provided at a flat rate, is more expensive to provide to rural areas, which generally receive door to door delivery which is largely unavailable in new high density urban develpoments. And, state highway funds, on average, also subisdize rural areas, which have many more miles of it per capita, used mostly by the locals, than urban areas.

There are legitimate reasons to subsidize rural living, and in particular farming. Food security is a worthwhile thing (although subsidizing a capacity that allows us to export food is a less obvious benefit), as is controlling urban sprawl. I am, however, far more sanguine about the benefits of subsizing exurban living. But, those who adhere to the myth that rural America is more self-reliant than urban America are simply incorrect, at least, when it comes to the balance sheet. Urban American grossly subsidizes rural life economically. If this is the policy choice that Americans choose to make, fine. But, everyone should know who is supporting whom.

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