Friday, April 21, 2017

Attachment to place and nonmetropolitan labor markets

One of the characteristics of rurality that surfaced early on as sometimes legally relevant on in my study of rural livelihoods is attachment to place.  That is, a strong presumption seems to exist among rural sociologists and perhaps others that rural residents--especially multi-generation rural residents--are more attached to their rural hometowns/areas than is the case with urban dwellers.  The words "homestead" and "home place" have this rural connotation.  Indeed, I have speculated elsewhere regarding whether the (apparent) attachment is to the place more broadly speaking--to the community--or more to the land itself. I note that the attachment to place label/tag on this blog has been used 89 times in the near decade-long life of Legal Ruralism.  Usually, I (or my students blogging with me) use the label to describe the phenomenon when they observe it in their hometowns or read about it, though journalists themselves rarely use the term.

One context in which the phenomenon often arises regards labor markets--the question frequently being asked:  If rural employment opportunities are so poor, why don't rural residents just move to where the jobs are?  The same might be said about poor rural infrastructure, schools and healthcare for example--if these are inferior, why don't rural folks "move to town"?

Against that backdrop, I was surprised to see NPR's "Indivisible" program treat attachment to place sympathetically in its episode this week, titled "How Do We Get America Back to Work?"  Here's the blurb describing the program:
When GM idled its plant in Janesville, Wisconsin in 2008, the town became emblematic of a crisis facing many communities in middle America. When traditional manufacturing leaves – for whatever reason – economies are turned upside down, the collective identity changes, and very often depression sets in. While it may seem outdated to some that a community will identify with a corporation, that's just what happened for decades. Losing the plant left many in Janesville searching for a future. This week, President Trump signed an executive order to bring jobs back to towns like Janesville, but the question is — is it too little too late? On this episode of Indivisible, host Kerri Miller talks with Amy Goldstein, author of "Janesville, An American Story," and Linda Tirado, author of "Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America," about the realities of the company town and what the future holds.
Among those featured in the episode was a man Amy Goldstein followed for her book about the closure of a General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, population 65,000, so not exactly rural.  Once the Janesville GM plant closed, he and several other Janesville men decided to commute to another GM plant in Indiana, driving there on Monday morning to work the second shift and staying through Friday night, when they returned home to their families in Janesville.  One particularly poignant segment was where Goldstein described the men coming back into Janesville on a Friday night and dropping off the worker who lived in the southernmost part of the city.  Then the men would vary the journey they took to the northern part of town where other workers lived; they did this because they enjoyed seeing the different parts of town, the streets of Janesville, generally empty in the wee hours.  It seemed to prompt them to wax nostalgic about how great Janesville was, their upbringing there.  I suppose it also helped justify the decision they had made to leave their children there to benefit from a Janesville upbringing.

Another person who was interviewed or called in to the program talked of moving from his smallish city in Florida out of state for a job, only to mourn the sense of being known that he had enjoyed in his hometown.  In short, the anonymity he experienced in the place to which he moved left him grieving the connectedness he had enjoyed in the place where he grew up.    

I highly recommend this episode of Indivisible and, indeed, the entire series.  It's the best forum I've found for neutrally, non-judgmentally exploring the issues that are dividing our nation in the age of Trump.

1 comment:

Orchid64 said...

I am astonished at the lack of insight anyone betrays when asking why rural folks don't just up and move to where the jobs are. Moving is one of the most stressful and difficult experiences one can have, even within a known territory. It's also enormously expensive and rural life is cheaper than urban life by a huge margin. Do those who contemplate this topic live in such isolation in academic ivory towers that they don't know this?

I've moved 7 times in 5 years and it has been hard each time, and very expensive. The latest move from the Bay Area to rural Northern California cost $1700. With rent in the area I currently live in ranging between $500-$1000 (apartments tend to be around $600-$700), it would require locals to gather up nearly three months worth of their highest expenditure just to shoulder the expense of packing up, renting a moving vehicle, and closing out their various services. That's just the move and doesn't include considerations like a deposit on an apartment in more expensive area, the cost of installations for starting services, etc. It's not a cheap thing and rural folks generally don't have several thousand dollars in the bank to make such moves.

Before one even gets to the loss of social connection and identity, one has to look at the cold, hard facts. Even if a rural person was willing to move, very few have the resources to contemplate it, especially when the move is motivated by a job loss/loss of income.