For the uninitiated, the Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic future in a North American country named Panem. In this country a gleaming, futuristic capital harshly controls the people and resources of 12 poorer "districts." Each year the capital commands each district to provide two young people for a televised battle to the death as punishment for a past rebellion.
The film is clever, combining tense action sequences with the ethos of dystopian epics like Blade Runner. But it also holds an eerie too-close-to-home familiarity to larger socio-economic trends in the country today.
I can see the rough outlines of Hunger Games America in Patchwork Nation's 12 county types "“ not based around a single capital, but rather around regional big urban centers. The big city Industrial Metropolis counties (like Lake in Illinois or Philadelphia), their neighboring wealthy Monied Burbs and the more exurban Boom Towns, on one side. The aging, less-wealthy, more-rural Service Worker Centers, Emptying Nests, Evangelical Epicenters, Minority Central and Immigration Nation counties on the other.
The numbers tell the story.
Consider income. Last year, in The Atlantic, we compared median family incomes in our 12 county types in 1980 to incomes in 2010. The three more urbanized metro county types all saw their inflation-adjusted incomes rise over that period. All of them now have median incomes exceeding $51,000. The five more rural types all saw their incomes fall in adjusted dollars and all sat below $46,000.
Then look at education, increasingly the measure of whether one can succeed in the modern economy. All the county types we study increased their overall educational attainment, but at starkly different rates. In 1970, the share of college graduates in the more urban county types slightly exceeded the national average by between .4 to 3.3 percentage points. In 2010, that gap widened to between .7 to 7.4 percentage points. The rural locales? They were below the national average by about 4 to 5 percentage points in 1970. In 2010, they had slipped to 5 to 11 percentage points below.
These divides are growing and there aren't a lot of ways to quickly fix them. There simply aren't as many decent paying jobs in rural communities. As Rick Santorum often noted in his presidential campaign, many small towns were built around one large manufacturer. Now many of those are shuttered, the victim of both foreign competition and automation. As those jobs vanish, so do the opportunities to earn good wages without an advanced education. And all of this is happening as college costs rise.
It's a troubling picture of divergence that feels disturbingly Hunger Games-esque.
Dante Chinni is the Project Director for PatchworkNation.org