Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Why don't you just move to the city?

That is the implicit message (sometimes explicit!) to rural folks when they complain about what they don't have service-wise, when they complain about their crummy labor markets, when they point out what it's like to be on the crappy end of the digital divide.  Rather than attempt to alleviate inequities across the rural-urban axis, many think rural residents should just move to the city if they are unhappy with what the government is not providing in rural places.

I have argued elsewhere that one problem with this posture is that it assumes mobility--it assumes that people can just pick up and move.  And that's not really a fair assumption, especially for low-income folks.  Moving is expensive, and it can be risky.  (Of course, this advice also ignores rural attachment to place, but that's another issue).

Now, the Wall Street Journal has published the third installment in its "One Nation, Divisible" series, and it's all about rural lack of mobility.  Here are some key excerpts from "Struggling Americans Once Sought Greener Pastures.  Now They're Stuck" by  Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg.
[O]verall mobility of the U.S. population is at its lowest level since measurements were first taken at the end of World War II, falling by almost half since its most recent peak in 1985. 
In rural America, which is coping with the onset of socioeconomic problems that were once reserved for inner cities, the rate of people who moved across a county line in 2015 was just 4.1%, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. That’s down from 7.7% in the late 1970s. It has fallen faster than the mobility rate in metropolitan areas, which the rural rate is now slightly below. 
This drop in mobility is not only keeping rural residents from climbing a ladder to better livelihoods, it is choking off the labor supply for employers in areas where jobs are plentiful. This limits the economic growth that naturally occurs when people and capital cluster together, says David Schleicher, a professor at Yale Law School who has studied the issue.
* * * 
Economists say there are several practical reasons for the declining rural mobility—the first being the cost of housing. While small-town home prices have only modestly recovered from the housing market meltdown, years of restrictive land-use regulations have driven up prices in metropolitan areas to the point where it is difficult for all but the most highly educated professionals to move.
The story's dateline is West Branch, Michigan (population 2,139), which is in Ogemaw County (population 21,699) in the northern part of the state, more than three hours from Detroit.  Adamy and Overberg also touch on the rural vote and how the inability to migrate to cities is fueling the nation's burgeoning inequality gap.  And they acknowledge that "cultural" issues, as well as economic ones, may lead rural folks to stay put.  
Civic leaders here say extended networks of friends and family and a tradition of church groups that will cover heating bills, car repairs and septic services—often with no questions asked—also dissuade the jobless and underemployed from leaving.

Tom Quinn, president of the local Kirtland Community College, says the rationale boils down to: “I’ve got good social services. I’m stuck in one big rut. If you ask me to go to Indianapolis, I can’t—even if there’s a job there.” 
“People can’t move,” says Mandi Chasey, county economic development director.
I have written about the significance of these small-town and rural networks of kith and kin--and of informal economies--here and here.  

Another aspect of the "cultural" barrier to relocation relates to trust, or the lack thereof:
Economists have tried to measure whether Americans’ eroding trust in one another is damping mobility—such confidence helps ease the transition to a new town—and found signs that this sliding trust may be keeping people from uprooting.
According to the GSS, the share of Americans who agree with the statement “Most people can be trusted” has fallen over the past four decades to 31% in 2016 from 46% in 1972.
The story provides some interesting anecdotes illustrating this trust/distrust point, and some of the are decidedly raced, e.g., rural northern Michigan vs. Detroit. 

The economic slice of this feature reminds me of a comment Assemblyman Brian Dahle made when he visited my Law and Rural Livelihoods course in the spring semester of this year.  Dahle represents California's 1st District (stretching from north Lake Tahoe to the Oregon line) in the state legislature, and he lives and farms in tiny Bieber, in the northern part of Lassen County.  Talking about the State of Jefferson movement and why so many far northern Californians are so agitated, Dahle said, "I think a lot of people are angry because they own a house in Bieber."  From this I understood him to say that some folks are stuck in a rural place with/by home ownership (and a housing market without a lot of churn and perhaps declining property values)--but without a good job. 

This WSJ piece also reminds me of the "just transitions" literature, which considers what we owe people who are left behind as local economies, e.g., coal extraction, shift.  Does the government owe the folks of West Branch government assistance so that, if they desire to do so, they can "move to town"?

Post script on August 12, 2017.   Here is a piece from Dame Magazine titled, "Can't Find Work.  Trump Says Just Move to Wisconsin."  As that headline suggests, it's apropos to this blog post.  The piece is by Megan Carpentier, who writes from an unidentified "village" in upstate New York.  An excerpt follows, quoting a then-recent Wall Street Journal interview with President Trump:
I still don't want to live there, but I do understand better that where you live is, for many people, much, much more than what you do and where you can do it. Someone, though, perhaps should've told President Donald Trump, who in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday explained that the people still living where I grew up should simply abandoned their homes and their communities and move to Wisconsin. 
"I'm going to start explaining to people, when you have an area that just isn't working like upper New York state, where people are getting very badly hurt, and then you'll have another area 500 miles away where you can't get people, I'm going to explain, you can leave," he told the [Wall Street Journal's] editors and reporters. "It's OK. Don't worry about your house." 
Now, maybe it's hard for people that didn't grow up upstate to understand the dynamic of a downstate businessman-president city-splaining to us rubes that we're foolish to hold on to something as meaningless as real estate when there's a $54,000/year job to be had 864 miles away in Kenosha, Wisconsin**, but let me try. 
Fuck. You. 
The just-abandon-your-property-for-greener-pastures plan has been a complete disaster for Detroit. It drives down property values overall, decimating what financial legacy those low-income and middle-income workers can provide to their heirs in order to influencetheir social mobility (and the lack of inherited wealth is a significant cause of continuing racialized economic inequality), reduces the tax base, undermines the provision to remaining residents of necessary services and rips established communities asunder. 

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