Gas prices hit rural America the hardest

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

By Thomas D. Rowley

Guest columnist

A few months ago, my family and I left the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and headed for the hills of Texas. (Yes, Texas has hills.)

As a result of the move, we're now enjoying the many benefits of small-town living: a saner pace of life, a deeper connection to nature, and folks that say "please," "thank you" and "have a great day" -- and actually mean it -- to name but a few.

We knew of course, there would be trade-offs: saying goodbye to family and friends and leaving behind big-city amenities like world-class museums, zoos, concerts and such. (OK, in truth, I went to the Kennedy Center maybe three times in 17 years of living there, but it was there if I had ever developed a sudden operatic urge.) What we didn't expect was such severe gas pains.

No, not that kind. (Though I have significantly upped my intake of barbecue and Mexican food.) I'm talking about the pain that hits every time I see the tank heading toward empty while the price at the pump remains stratospheric. And I see that inverse phenomenon quite a lot these days.

Living in the city all those years -- taking the subway, walking, and biking -- I'd forgotten just how much time one spends in the car in rural America. Moving back home has reconnected me not only to my roots but also to the steering wheel. And the miles add up in a hurry. Our son's school, which has no bus, is 22 miles away. The grandparents who we came back to see more often are 95 miles away.

Big-city shopping is 60 miles away. (Yes, I'm a big proponent of buying locally, but some things just aren't available in our little town; other things cost a whole lot more and sometimes my city-girl wife just needs an urban fix-and to get away from me and the boys.) And, well, you get the idea.

And we're among the fortunate ones. Unlike so many rural people, neither my wife nor I have to commute for work. Most of our miles are optional. For the many who must drive long distances to jobs, health care, childcare or college, the rising price of gas isn't merely a pain; it's a serious malady.

A recent report by the Consumer Federation of America put some numbers on it.

According to the study, rural households will spend on average some $2,100 on gas this year.

By comparison, urban households will spend only $1,700. And because rural income is about 25 percent lower than urban, that difference is magnified in terms of its bite out of the family budget: Rural households will spend nearly 5 percent of their income on gasoline, compared to about 3 percent for urban households. More if the price starts to climb again.

Not surprisingly, rural folks surveyed for the report were more likely than urban folks to see gas prices as a great concern, by a margin of 82 percent to 71 percent.

The question is: What will any of us -- rural or urban -- do about it? And the answer, sadly, is: Not much.

For many rural folks, there's little they can do.

The poor can't afford to go out and buy a new, energy-efficient car.

Those who drive long distances out of necessity can't cut back much on their miles.

For many others, urban and rural, too, it isn't a matter of "can't;" it is one of "won't." In a nation of auto worship, we won't sacrifice our ride for the sake of the environment, national security or our own wallets. We'll stick to our oversized gas guzzlers come hell or high prices.

As historical evidence of that, Princeton economics professor Alan Krueger pointed out in "The New York Times" that when inflation-adjusted gasoline prices rose 53 percent from 1998 to 2004, consumption didn't fall as one might logically expect: It actually rose 10 percent!

Summing up our nation's shortsighted, hard-headed denial about energy, he wrote, "In the short run, some people drive less when gas prices rise or they buy a more fuel-efficient car, but most do not change their lifestyle and just complain about prices."

Will someone please pass the Tums?

Thomas D. Rowley is a Rural Policy Research Institute Fellow. The Rural Policy Research Institute provides objective analysis and facilitates public dialogue concerning the impacts of public policy on rural people and places.