Saturday, January 16, 2010

Networks of "kith and kin" matter more in urban places, too--at least in an economic downturn

At least that is the message from this post by Katherine Newman, a sociologist at Princeton University, to the Room for Debate blog on The subject of this particular exchange among experts was "A Nation of Hunkered Down Homebodies," and it discusses possible reasons why the nation's mobility rate fell last year to the lowest since World War II. The editors note that the current recession and lack of jobs are certainly factors, but that the trend has gained force since the 1950s, when a fifth of all Americans moved every year. They summarize the query put to the blog's contributors:
Greater labor mobility helps the economy, but are there other kinds of effects — negative or positive — related to a more rooted population? Is there an upside to more Americans staying closer to their hometowns?
Of course, immobility has long been associated with the poor, and it has also long been associated with rural communities, where reliance on networks of so-called kith and kin have been seen as a sort of capital that ameliorated some of the hardships associated with rural living. Indeed, such networks have long been viewed as features of rural informal economies. I have written about this aspect of rural living, among other places, here and here.

The significance of such networks loomed large enough in discussions in my law and rural livelihoods class a few years ago that an alum of that class emailed me this week to point out what Professor Newman had said in this Room for Debate exchange. A quote from Newman follows:
One of the virtues of being stuck is that we can continue to rely on the friends and family nearby to help us get through hard times. “Social capital,” the stock of trust and support we draw on in daily life, is especially important when families are under stress. A child care emergency can be patched up if grandma is next door rather than 2,000 miles away. Borrowing $50 to get by is easier if you have someone close to turn to and much harder if you are a newcomer.
In sum, as Newman writes, staying put may help us retain our ties to one another, including a greater sense of community and a range of benefits associated with it. This is something long-time rural residents have long known--and tended to act upon--by staying put.

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