Friday, January 5, 2018

So much rural news (much about economics, work, mobility), so little time to blog (Part I)

Happy New Year!  For my first post of 2018, I am going to try to catch up by summarizing quickly a number of recent mainstream, high-profile news stories about rural America--most of them quite depressing.  They feature tales of shrinking amenities and store closures, population loss and migration, shifting rural economies, failing job training and such.

Several of these stories are by the Washington Post, including this one from Hermitage, Pennsylvania, population 16,220, in the western part of the state, about a mall (and a town) that lost its Macy's, then its Sears and which now fears it will lose its JCPenney.  Here's an excerpt from Jessica Contrera's story:
Headlines have called the shrinking of these American staples the “retail apocalypse.” In Hermitage, employees called it “the funeral,” because of the way it sounded as customers lined up to make their final purchases. “I’m so sorry,” they said. “I’m in shock.” “What are you going to do?” “What am I going to do?” 
What might have been just a sign of the times in a bigger city was a life-changing and economy-altering loss for Hermitage, the kind of place too far from anywhere to be considered a suburb, but too developed to be considered rural or to attract visitors with small-town charm. The closest thing Hermitage has to a downtown is the intersection where its mall sits, surrounded by McDonald’s, Walgreens and Dunkin’ Donuts. The biggest buildings down the road are Kohl’s, Kmart and Walmart. The retail industry is the third-largest employer in town, just behind health care and manufacturing.
A WonkBlog piece in the Post a few days later asks a question prompted by the Contrera story:  "America's Forgotten Towns:  Should They Be Saved or Should People Just Leave?"  Heather Long, an economics correspondent, puts the failure of Americans to move for better economic opportunities into historical context:
But the reality is Americans have become homebodies. People in the United States are moving at about half the rate that they did in the 1970s and '80s, according to census data, and no one really understands why. There are obvious economic barriers to moving. It's expensive and risky to leave a place your family has been living in for generations, and there's no guarantee the job you move for will still exist in a few years. But there seems to be something deeper holding people in place.
A high school vocational tech teacher in central Ohio — who asked not to be named, to speak freely — told me: “Most of our students will not give the slightest thought to relocating should they not be able to find good employment here. They cite all the [usual reasons], but a big one is just plain fear of the unknown. My students think Columbus is a big, scary city. Many have never even been out of the county.” 
Among economists, a major rethink is underway about how to help people in forgotten towns, and it's starting to filter into policy debates in Washington. The mentality is shifting from “let's get these people to move” to “let's get new jobs to these towns.”  
Her attention to attachment to place really resonates with me because it's a feature of rural life I've been writing about (and trying to assess the significance of) for more than a decade now.  Long draws heavily on the thinking of Joseph Stiglitz, which she contrasts somewhat with that of Trump.

And that reminds me of this story from The Atlantic about the rights and wrongs of job retraining and how we do it in the United States.  See also this and this from Sweden.   Read more about migration (or lack thereof) for jobs from Alana Semuels in The Atlantic here.  And the Wall Street Journal reported on this issue last summer, and a blog post from earlier in 2017 is here.

I'm going to try to get back to Part II of this post in the next few days, but in case I don't, I'll at least  tease you with this link from the Denver Post on urban-to-rural migration in Colorado (it's about gentrification, cost-of-living and retirement ...) and this one on Puerto Rico-to-South Dakota migration, post-Hurricane Maria (it's about a labor shortage in the meat processing biz). The Georgia legislature is considering the sorts of investments that will be adequate incentives to stem population loss from its rural counties, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports here.  Finally, this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education links lack of education to public health; it features extreme rural poverty in the Missouri bootheel.  

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Don't know if you follow her, but Molly Parker is doing some fine reporting on the far southern counties in Illinois, which in many respects resemble Appalachia in terms of economics, poverty, and despair. She writes for The Southern. Latest piece is at