Struggling but Stuck in Rural America

The Wall Street Journal published an excellent, sympathetic, in-depth article on why residents of rural America who want to leave to get better jobs as their local economies wither can’t get out. Some will no doubt seem obvious to readers while I suspect others will be surprises.

Even though mobility has fallen generally in the US, it has decreased more in rural areas than urban ones. The number of people in rural counties who moved across county lines in 2015 was 4.1% compared to 7.7% in the late 1970s. This is despite the fact that rising poverty and other social stresses mean even more people want to get out than ever. See the geographic distribution:

But “getting out” means moving to a city, even if just a mid-sized one. And many small town denizens find it harder than ever to make the jump. The Wall Street Journal story focuses on West Branch, Michigan, a town with barely over 2000 people hit hard by the closure of manufacturers and changes in farming. But even with its economic distress, hardly anyone leaves. The county, with about 21,000 residents, loses only one person per 1,000 each year. The photos convey that the members of the town live in a beautiful area and care about the community. This shot is from a resident’s patio. Notice the carefully tended lawn and the tidy houses across the lake:

While economic barriers loom large, social and cultural factors also play a big role.

The most obvious hurdle is high housing costs. The gap between rural and urban housing prices has become a yawning chasm. While professionals could make the transition, the article points out that less skilled workers can’t. A janitor who left Alabama, Mississippi or South Carolina for the New York City metro area would wind up paying 52% of his paycheck on housing. 1

But other impediments aren’t as widely recognized:

Another obstacle to mobility is the growth of state-level job-licensing requirements, which now cover a range of professions from bartenders and florists to turtle farmers and scrap-metal recyclers. A 2015 White House report found that more than one-quarter of U.S. workers now require a license to do their jobs, with the share licensed at the state level rising fivefold since the 1950s.

Age discrimination plays a role too. One of the vignettes in the article is of a a 38 year old graphic designer, a college graduate, who wants to move to Grand Rapids to be closer to her daughter. She’s been repeatedly turned down in favor of younger applicants.2

But the cultural barriers are significant. The Journal leads with the story of Taylor Tibbets, a high school standout who seemed poised to succeed in the wider world:

But she was so intimidated by her first week at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. that she came home. The following year, she went to Lincoln College in Lincoln, Ill. but dropped out after a semester and had yet another failed go at college:

…she clashed with her swim coach. As a conservative Christian, she also found the cultural divide on campus difficult to bridge. Students smoked pot, engaged in casual sex and had parties at their parents’ homes behind their backs…

Determined to try again, she started at Olivet College in south central Michigan in 2016. But she struggled to fit in there, too. She felt uncomfortable when a professor asked students to write about why Donald Trump would make a bad president. Ms. Tibbetts began racing back to work at the pizzeria on weekends to avoid roommates who threw up in the shower after excessive drinking. She eventually moved home.

Another factor that keeps people in West Branch and Ogemaw County are the formal and informal social safety nets and the strength of the community. An overview plus one of several anecdotes:

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…

Many West Branch residents say that the town’s economic woes aren’t enough to make them leave. They point to the safety net the community provides—a helping hand to pay bills, or the way people come together when a neighbor is diagnosed with cancer. “One of the big cultural divides when people move from small towns to cities is this feeling that you can’t be involved in your community,” says David J. Peters, associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University. “You feel powerless to change large cities.”

Christopher Palazzolo grew up just north of Detroit, but after living in West Branch for 26 years, he can’t imagine going back. The 49-year-old father of three has watched his income slide to $11.63 an hour as a retirement home cook, down from the $15 per hour he paid himself when he co-owned a nearby restaurant until 2009. He calls the skinnier wage “rough.”

The bank foreclosed on his family’s home, and for the past eight years they have lived in a low-income housing development, where black rubber tires are strewn around the sand-filled playground, and early-model Pontiac Grand Am cars fill the parking lot. About 70 applicants are on a waiting list for units there.

“I don’t need a fancy car or a bigger house,” Mr. Palazzolo says. “I have no interest whatsoever in dealing with the city, the congestion. I like my little corner of the world.”

Palazzolo has come to terms with his situation while most of the others featured in this article want to leave but can’t find a way to make the break. Another factor operating against getting out is that places that has as little in and out migration as West Branch is that their level of trust in other people (which presumably is people generally as opposed to people they know personally) has fallen more dramatically than in the US overall. That sort of guardedness would lead to a tendency to interpret any bad experiences in living in a new place as confirming their suspicions, as opposed to trying to shrug it off as bad luck.

The Journal’s basis for concern is that having more workers stuck in place is bad for groaf. But despite providing a good window into the problem in a compressed space, there are no suggestions as to what to do, nor any indication that the paper might address those issues in a later companion piece. One reason is that many of them would fly in the face of conservative ideology. Better national safety nets would reduce the dependence on neighbors and the community as sources of support, and reduce the risk of having a go in a new location. More subtly, media fragmentation and the diminished role of national broadcast networks has played a role. When I was a kid, you had ABC, NBC, and CBS, plus a local public broadcasting station. All the networks reinforced cultural norms. There might still be parts of the country that were vehemently opposed, but having lived in four small towns among the many places we moved while I was growing up, from what I saw of the indoctrination, it was generally well received. The lack of national glue of this sort increases the already large gaps between various parts of the US.

Unfortunately but predictably, the comments on this article are overwhelmingly hostile, accusing the residents of West Branch of laziness, lack of willpower and guts. And many chest-thump about how they got out of small town America, airbrushing out of the picture that they escaped when college was cheaper and good jobs were easier to land. So despite the Journal getting close enough to its subjects to show the complexity of rural distress, its subscribers have force fit the picture into their framework that only losers are poor.


1 An aside: even though Alabama has high unemployment overall, it has seen net migration from the stagnant parts of the state to the fastest-growing counties, most important, the ones around Birmingham. So the rural to urban move is happening to a degree within lower-income states.

2 Another barrier to moving is lack of a network. A dirty secret seldom discussed is most jobs never appear on the job market. An employee wanting to move lets his contacts know he’s up for a change. He’s in a position to land a job before it is officially posted or have someone in a growing business who likes his background create a position for him.

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  1. s

    I think part of the problem is previous conceptions of reality and an easily manipulated demographic, evoke some mythology [esoteric extension+] or exceptionalism [see aforementioned], when that does not wash the results are not pretty.

    Then the issue is how to manage such a conundrum, will the elites say mistakes were made, good intentions aside or shall it be a case of white wash [hand washing], Democracy always ends in totalitarianism thingy….

    disheveled… its sort a like an old mate that used to take the last few pages of a book you were reading… then you would have to call them up at 2:00 AM in the morning when you were finishing the book…

    1. Susan the other

      When the jobs are gone from rural towns it is the beginning of renewal. One industry that could re-employ people in place is deconstruction. It would allow those leaving to sell their property to the city and the city could employ a variety of people in the total recycling of the home/buildings and this could include green reclamation projects and new industries like wind farming, organic farming, wildlife conservation, tree planting, etc. – all of which encourage salvage done sustainably which can also provide a modest safety net – rather than just disincorporate and let the town rot away. Moving to a big city with a groaf economy will be a big problem for that city because of all the millions of rural refugees overloading the capacity to provide services, etc. Whereas a contained immigration might be good for both small and big cities.

      1. sierra7

        Those are all great and imaginative suggestions….however….destructive capitalism especially in decline as so many areas of our country are in don’t consider those endeavors “productive and profitable”. Their sights are very, “short”. It drives me nuts to think of all the areas of the country that could stand re-innovation, environmental cleanups………all the land that could be turned into community farms to feed those who have almost no access to fresh foods. There are so many ways your ideas could work but our system would attempt to crush the life out of those works. We need better imaginative politicians, not the ones we have had for far too long that sleep with the capitalists; we need young, imaginative, unafraid, fighters for a better way of life.

  2. reason

    A Basic income would solve the problem. More people will live where they can afford to live, rather than where they can find a job, and to some extent the jobs will follow them.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I know this is not a popular view with some readers, but a basic income will never happen. Read the Journal comments. The history of Speenhamland (a local and therefore patchy version of a basic income from the 1790s to the 1830s in England) was that it became a subsidy to employers and drove wages down. That’s why Silicon Valley squillionaires are all over it, to get their workers even cheaper. Speenhamland operated to the disadvantage of workers who did not want to be dependents. It also came perceived to be increasingly expensive and a cause of idleness and sloth, and was torn apart in a brutal backlash of the Poor Laws, which not only ended the system entirely but imposed the workhouses, which were so punitive by design (they would deliberately tear families apart) so as to force men to take any sort of work to stay out of them.

      There is huge prejudice towards the “undeserving poor” getting handouts. I see this particularly among workers who have middle class incomes but their jobs don’t require a college degree (like the hairdressers in my salon, many of whom actually are college educated). Even if a program like this were instituted as a Milton Friedman-esque replacement for welfare (to reduce the number of Federal programs and employees in the name of efficiency) you can guarantee it would be made more threadbare over time.

      Plus as we have discussed, a basic income would be massively inflationary.

      A jobs guarantee is the much better policy.

      And better to start with policy pushes that would help everyone that the public is ready to support, like single payer.

      1. Mike

        A guaranteed job? You mean like demeaning “make work” projects with a bunch of listless souls standing around doing little to Nothing? That’s Communism. And Communism ultimately ends in genocidal slaughter. I’d think you know this.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          You like displaying your ignorance, don’t you?

          The WPA was one of the most successful programs of the Great Depression and created important jobs on a mass scale:

          The government hired about 60 per cent of the unemployed in public works and conservation projects that planted a billion trees, saved the whooping crane, modernized rural America, and built such diverse projects as the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh, the Montana state capitol, much of the Chicago lakefront, New York’s Lincoln Tunnel and Triborough Bridge complex, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown. It also built or renovated 2,500 hospitals, 45,000 schools, 13,000 parks and playgrounds, 7,800 bridges, 700,000 miles of roads, and a thousand airfields. And it employed 50,000 teachers, rebuilt the country’s entire rural school system, and hired 3,000 writers, musicians, sculptors and painters, including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

          One of the towns I lived in, Escanaba, Michigan, had a park on the lakefront which is now its most important public amenity and it was a WPA project.

          Moreover, you are also wrong about the USSR. We’ve had readers who lived under it say it has been sorely misrepresented, that low income people fared well and often had a small house in the country in addition to their homes or apartments in the city. As recent studies have determined, the first generation of central planning worked well, which is why the US was freaked out, since the USSR was showing more rapid productivity gains than we were. But bureaucrats in the regions started to game the system, not wanting to have to meet production targets, and fed the bureaucrats in Moscow bad data and also hoarded output. The bad signals made a mess of a formerly successful system.

          1. Bottom Gun

            I have to observe that, as opposed as the two of you are in your views, both descriptions of Communists’ “demeaning make-work projects” and their “bureaucrats [who] game the system” reminded me vividly of my three years in the (non-military) US federal government. In my experience, those guys actually made us Wall Streeters look sparkling clean and honest by comparison. Communism endures, just where you would least expect it!

            1. Wyoming

              I spent my entire professional life in the US Federal Government and have a totally different story. I never worked less than 50 hours a week and the last 5 years at least 12 hours a day. Many times I worked 50-60 straight days. Me and pretty much all of the people I worked with never even came close to using our annual leave and just gave it up for the cause. People I knew lost their lives doing their job and I came close on several occasions. This ideological mindset which hates the government and the people who serve it is one of the great sicknesses of America.

              And I am sorry for you, but there is nothing on Earth which could ever make Wall Street of those who shill for it like you ever clean or honorable.

              1. Anon

                As a former Nevada state official, I second your claim. The state of Nevada is mostly federal land (85%) and my interaction with those employees were remarkable. Dedicated, well-educated, and motivated. As an example, the federal resource (land) personnel mostly had advanced science degrees; the state employees I worked with not so much.

                While any large agency (public or private) will have its complement of dullards and dingbats, the federal employees I’ve encountered in my lifetime (going on 70) are mostly motivated members of agencies determined to do right for the public good.

            2. Propertius

              This is completely at odds with my experience as a vendor and contractor to various Federal agencies (DOD, NASA, a couple of the “three letter agencies”, etc.). In general, the civil servants I’ve worked with have been extremely dedicated and hard-working, and have been downright obsessive in making sure that contractors adhere to specifications and perform as promised. In fact, they’re much more diligent about such things than the vast majority of private entities I deal with.

              It’s almost enough to make April 15th bearable ;-).

              1. Kevskos

                I remember a call I got as a travel agent. The woman on the line informed me that the Chief Judge of the Virginia State Supreme court needed to talk to me. He stated that he needed to book a trip for his wife and himself and he needed some help. His secretary always booked his work trips and his wife always booked their personal trips; however, his wife’s father had passed away and he did not want to burden her. He had never booked a flight and would probably need more coaching than most. What a gentleman and my average view of how government officials work and care about ethics. Most CEO’s would of had their secretaries make reservation for a personal trip.

          2. Charger01

            Bingo. I visited Storm Lake Iowa this past winter, and discovered several local landmarks that were WPA projects- still standing and serviceable in 2017. WPA, NRCS and I’d argue the USFS have been a net benefit even to today.

          3. Frenchguy

            Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time is a great read on this topic (collection of short autobiographies of people who lived in the USSR). Short summary: there was a whole lot of bad but the worst ended with Staline, people where definitely not “rich” but life was very tolerable, with few consumer goods available people had more time for intellectual life, even people who spent years in camp could be very supportive of the system, the collapse of the USSR had horrific consequences for most people…

            All in all, this is definitely not a ringing endorsement of communism but a nice reminder that life goes on whatever the Leviathan does. And it puts Putin in perspective, after the deathly Stalin, the ascetic USSR and the 90s gangsters, I really don’t wish those guys a new revolution…

          4. Harry

            “Moreover, you also misrepresent the USSR. We’ve had readers who lived under it say it has been sorely misrepresented, that low income people fared well and often had a small house in the country in addition to their homes or apartments in the city. ”

            Not just the USSR – even in Russia today many have dachas and family plots. Small but but large enough to mean they never have to buy commercial sold pickles.

            1. polecat

              Yes ! Here’s to the Russian ‘kitchen garden’ … to which no russian family would be without !!

              1. Arizona Slim

                Russian gardeners take it to a whole new level. They make the rest of us look like amateurs.

          5. Jason Boxman

            I’ve seen the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh and it is indeed an awesome structure in every sense of the word. I had no idea it was WPA, though.

            As recounted in Boys in the Boat, at least one of the ’36 Olympic rowers worked on a huge WPA dam project.

            1. DanB

              the Cathedral was begun in 1921 and for some years it remained unfinished. In 1933-34 the CWA, a New Deal program, assigned workers to help (finally) complete it.

            2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

              Good movie, Boys in the Boat. Kids from a rural state going all the way to the games in Berlin.

            3. Arizona Slim

              The Cathedral is built like a brick shhhh-house. Says Slim, who used to work at Pitt. And, for the record, that job was the worst one I’ve ever had.

          6. Vatch

            the first generation of central planning worked well

            Are you referring to Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP)? That was a hybrid of central planning and market economics, and it did work reasonably well. But Stalin’s five year plans weren’t so good, and they were accompanied by extreme brutality. I’m sure local bureaucrats were responsible for some of the problems, but they can’t be blamed for everything.

          7. ToivoS

            Now that we are talking about the virtues of the WPA programs from the 1930s for those us in California here is another story. For those who visit Yosemite Natl Park driving in on state hgwy 120 there is a section where the road is above the valley and then snakes down the side of the canyon. (the usual entrance is 140 those goes right up the Merced River valley into the park). But that section on 120 contains numerous granite block retaining walls. This is one spectacular road. Also look at those rock retaining walls. Hand carved out of the abundant granite stone the valley is famous for. Those were built by WPA work crews. If anyone has considered the skills required to fashion raw granite into those well fitting stones then you would definitely have recognize those as highly skilled stone workers. Most impressive is that this work was done by hand — other than dynamite those stones were not cut by power tools. This was part of the American work force that became idle during the great depression.

            1. Webstir

              Montana too. Going to the sun road in Glacier National Park is a phenomenal engineering achievement.

          8. kramer

            I grew up in rural west Texas. The fingerprints of the WPA programs were everywhere, even 50 years later. The most beautiful buildings in town, the windbreaks, and terraced farm land were much more than “make work”.

        2. funemployed

          Is building infrastructure demeaning? Is laboring for a livable wage demeaning? Is caring for those who can’t care for themselves demeaning? Is working to save our planet demeaning? Is educating children demeaning? Are journalism, art, and basic research demeaning? More demeaning that working for minimum wage at Walmart?

          Also, a jobs guarantee isn’t “communism,” it’s a jobs guarantee. Communism is an attempt to create a near-perfectly equal distribution of the means and products of production. A jobs guarantee would actually provide a large boost in consumer demand, and help build a more sustainable and prosperous Capitalism.

          1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

            To this Libra,

            1. working to build, say, a homeless shelter is not demeaning.

            2. Universal basic income is for everyone to get handouts, not just the poor. Didn’t everyone (all nearly everyone) get a check not too many years ago in hope of stimulating the economy?

          2. ToivoS

            Is journalism demeaning? Depends on who is paying you. If NYTimes, WaPo, CNN, NBC, BBC, Reuters than the answer is yes.

        3. DH

          I live very close to a state park built by the CCC. It was very well done and is still going strong 80 years later. I think the CCC and WPA were brilliant moves in providing valuable infrastructure, art installations, and other resources that we are still using today. These people were doing valuable work that gave them housing, food, and dignity.

          The Communists in Russia also conceived of, and built, large quantities of the T-34 tank which was the best battle tank in the world during the early years of WW II. So thinking of them as unimaginative, listless souls vastly underestimated their capabilities.

          The stage was set for revolution by the Czarists’ violence and apathy towards the Russian population. fighting a brutal World War I against the Germans with accompanying deprivations at home was the capstone that allowed the October Revolution to be triggered in 1917. Poverty, starvation, and violence are how to destabilize a society. That is something for us to consider as we jail a large segment of our potential for minor offences, such as drug possession, thereby reducing their future employability.

        4. JULIA WILLE

          well communism ended with peaceful revolutions in most countries without any blood being spilled. It ended because people just stopped believing and even the armies and police and burocrats could not muster any enthusiasm to die or kill for it…

          1. witters

            “even the armies and police and burocrats could not muster any enthusiasm to die or kill for it…”

            Hmmm. 1) Perhaps they simply wouldn’t slaughter their fellow citizens… & 2) I wonder what will be the US story here. The true believers will slaughter, I suspect. Thus proving the power and value of “freem market capitalism.” (They already have more, far more, in their Gulags).

      2. nonclassical

        100%….university level Poly-Sci / Philosophy, Prof asked question I had not formulated; how-where, do you want to live?
        My answer was outside city, in nature. This evolved university goals…..

      3. hiho


        That’s really interesting. Universal basic income was originally an idea from Milton Friedman, which should be enough to make you suspect that it is not a progressive measure at all.

        As you have said, the most likely result would be for the basic income to work as a hidden subsidy, allowing employers to pay under-subsistence wages. If I am not mistaken, the food-stamp program in the US is already having this kind of effects, as for example it allows Waltmarts’ workers to survive with their miserable wages. So as a matter of a fact it is like a subsidy for Waltmart.Universal Basic Income would only make matters worse.

        About this topic, in the country where I come from (that’s Spain), there has been this kind of debate lately, and it’s no wonder that the 2 main parties in the far-right spectrum have defended this idea.

        I also find really interesting your take on a job guarantee policy. It’s just the perfect solution as by definition it would not crowd out the private sector nor would result in inflationary policies.

        Last but not least. You guys do not seem to realize that in the US you have a problem that it’s called: rentier class on steroids. What would be the point of giving money away to people if that money would be right away sucked up by trusts, health care mafias, energy monopolies and the financial sector?

        1. Mel

          But a Jobs Guarantee idea comes from the Center for American Progress, so there you are. (They want it to shut down when somebody’s estimate of NAIRU is attained. Whee.) You can’t avoid lying down with dogs these days. They just will come sniffing around.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            No it came from Randy Wray years before that. They adopted his concept and his terminology. It’s prominent in his book Understanding Modern Money which was published in 1998. And as a reader pointed out below, that derived from Hyman Minsky’s idea of the government as the employer of the last resort.

      4. Harry

        Why is it that my idleness and sloth are considered negative characteristics but my venality and gluttony and greed gets a pass?

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          Not to Bertrand Russell with his ‘In Praise of Idleness.’

          Greed should not get a pass.

          People fail all the time. We’re not perfect.

          The number one failure of teachers is students are not taught enough about sharing (assuming teachers are allowed to be human – to fail – in that case, we can ask what their number one failure is).

          Sharing is an obstacle to greed.

          Do we say to our students, “If anyone of your classmates fails the exam, none of you graduate to the next grade?” Here is sharing in a wider sense.

          (Do we say to our own children, “you share the video game with your brother?” Here is sharing in the more familiar, if not always there in every family all the time, sense. Parents are responsible as well for teaching sharing, but teachers have an extra incentive – their mission is to teach, and especially when they are the ones who teach powerful or lethal ideas, like designing drones or aircraft carriers.)

          That would be teamwork.

          That would be ‘It takes a village’ spirit.

          1. sierra7

            “Sharing” and “Compassion” are verboten in “free” market capitalism…even in “non free” capitalism.
            Everyone is a market, including your pets. That explosion in advertising targeting each and every breathing entity for exploitation achieved it’s awakening just after WW2……………Maybe there are still some on this site that remember that before WW2 for example, auto companies targeted whole families for sales; after WW2 if you remember pub like Collier’s, of course Life and others began targeting parts of families…..then later the whole ball of wax was let forth…….remember: we are all just economic targets in our system. If we want a system that includes compassion, true community living, progressive policies that include quality of lives (not “lifestyles”) we need a true revolt against this rude system.

      5. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        That’s why Silicon Valley squillionaires are all over it, to get their workers even cheaper.

        How does minimum wage figure in this?

        For example, if a basic income works out to be equivalent to $15/hr (roughly $2400/month, or so), and the minimum wage is $15/hr, then if hired by a squillionaire, the total take home is $30/hr.

        Perhaps maybe the squillionaire is paying a similar worker today (without Basic Income) $20/hr.

        In the example, the worker doing similar work go from getting $20/hr, to $30/hr.

        The squillionaire’s labor cost goes from $20/hr, to $15/hr.

        It’s not a perfect outcome (the squillionaire getting richer), but the worker also gets more money.

        To contain inflation, maybe the squillionaires are taxed more (tax away his $5/hr extra profit, and more).

      6. jrs

        a basic income probably WILL happen sooner or later just in overwhelming likelihood not in the U.S. because the culture wouldn’t accept it.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          Will that culture accept or refuse to accept the coming cashless society?

          I think Libertarians will be against that, so it’s possible an alliance can be formed with progressives on that front.

          1. sierra7

            Somehow the back room capitalists will have to come up with some sort of income distribution system to make up for the declining incomes; consider that if just China had “full employment” I don’t think the rest of the world could “consume” all the junk that they could produce….and the rest of the world would be out of jobs……..somewhere down the line we may truly need a, “…helicopter Ben” for all of society!!

  3. Strategist

    This is really interesting to me as a Brit as it does highlight a really large cultural difference between the US and Europe – one that I am aware of, but don’t experience on a day to day basis: that it’s an American cultural norm to roam around the country in search of work, whereas there is a European cultural norm – changing now – that you belong to the place you are from, and broadly speaking it’s the government’s job to make sure that the economy is offering opportunities in all areas.

    Britain as ever sits somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. Maggie Thatcher’s henchman Norman Tebbit caused uproar in the 1980s recession when he suggested that the unemployed in Britain’s industrial districts should “get on their bike and look for work”, i.e. upsticks and move to London/South East England, where new jobs were. That has been our approach for 30 years and we have a more unbalanced and unequal country than say France or Germany, where govt has traditionally been under greater pressure to bring investment and jobs to the people where they are. As an issue, it’s still contested – there is a debate going on about ‘somewhere people’/’anywhere people’ right now sparked by this book (which I haven’t read some am not saying I endorse,,,)

    I’m afraid I don’t have time to check the stats, but I doubt that a district where 85% of the population were born locally would stand out as an outlier in Europe in the same way that Cameron Parish Louisiana does. Or that having 8.8% of your population moving in or out in a given year would mark you as being right at the immobile end of the spectrum. I wonder if anyone in the NC community knows the stats?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      As someone who moved a lot in my childhood, I agree completely that the US view that mobility is good is societally unhealthy, and I probably should have said so in the post. A lot of moving weakens communities and people are happier (other things being equal) if they feel rooted.

      1. Livius Drusus

        I agree with you regarding the importance of strengthening communities and this is one of the reasons why the job guarantee/employer of last resort is a better policy choice than the basic income guarantee.

        L. Randall Wray mentions this in his paper on Hyman Minsky’s employer of last resort program where the ELR would take workers as they are with regard to skills and where they live which would slow the rate of urban migration and help sustain rural areas.


        This is a great post because it highlights the practical problems of the “just move” mantra that is thrown at people in rural areas. It is relatively easy for professionals in hot fields like tech or health care to move to large cities where jobs will likely be plentiful and they can afford the higher cost of living. But for workers in less favorable positions moving to a high cost of living area might actually make them worse off.

        Plus, as mentioned there is the issue of networking. Informal networks can be a big help when finding jobs or saving money on child care (grandma and grandpa can watch the kids while both parents work) but what do you do in a totally alien city where you don’t know anyone? That is why it makes sense for some people to stay in declining rural areas. In some cases it is the better option.

        1. Jimbo

          Agreed. You don’t realize how valuable having family around is untul you have kids. I have friends here in the Boston area who are both highly paid professionals, but they have no end of trouble taking care of their young kids (who have some emotional and behavioral issues) because their families are across the country and they have no one to help them out.

      2. funemployed

        Agreed. My question for the authors of this article is, what is their vision of society once this mobility “problem” is solved? Does everyone leave “rural” America? Is the problem that some “worthy” or potentially “worthy” people are “stuck” among the deplorables?

        We’ve tried this before as a country. As predominantly black urban spaces grew in size and population during the 20th century, they were effectively walled off and colonized by our economic, political, and justice systems. But slowly, as more and more people recognized that black people are, in fact, human beings, segregation based strictly on race began to offend our meritocratic sensibilities.

        Did we decolonize the spaces? Perish the thought. Instead, we combined meritocratic tokenism with increasingly repressive colonial policies and practices, and substituted rhetoric of space and merit (along with a host of dog-whistling language) for overt rhetoric of race. A pittance of black professionals and owners of capital (i.e. those who could act sufficiently white and middle class to not scare liberal white people) were invited to leave black urban spaces. Predominantly black spaces were then systematically decimated by a combination of the rapid loss of the black bourgeoisie, increasingly invasive policing and carceral practices (e.g. war on drugs), and the near total appropriation of control of economic and social institutions within predominantly black spaces by outsiders.

        Some of the black people who left were hoodwinked into supporting colonial policies and rewarded both materially and with social status, while those that remained in those spaces quickly caught wise and were understandably pissed. Then they fell into the trap laid for them and took their anger out on the invasive forces. This justified increasingly militaristic repression of those spaces by TPTB. No need to explain to the readers here what came next.

        Seems to me the same playbook is being consulted re: “rural” predominantly white spaces now, and the people left are slowly catching wise. Hopefully enough denizens of “rural” spaces realize soon that convincing “deplorables” to scapegoat their nonwhite brothers and sisters for their colonization is one of the only nonviolent tools the empire has left. At least, realize before their rage bubbles over into collective violence or they are all euthanized by opiates anyhow. Personally, I’m all out of optimism this morning. Maybe someone here can give me a reason to hope.

        1. divadab

          When people build strong resilient communities, the factors you note are less destructive. Consider the immigrant communities who form what are essentially villages of mutual tribal support.

          People have agency – they are not helpless pawns of power.

          1. funemployed

            Not sure where you got that I was arguing people don’t have agency, but I do argue that collective agency requires resources and relatively stable community institutions, and that superior capacity for violence always trumps both individual and collective agency so long as its use is seen as legitimate by the majority. My point was that urban black communities prior to the civil rights movement were strong and resilient, in spite of immense institutional and historical disadvantages.

            It’s analytically irresponsible to dismiss power in the name of “agency.” Both matter, as does context. If you want an example of state-sanctioned, racially justified violence trumping community agency, Jews were doing quite well in Poland circa 1930, with community characteristics that surely exemplify the model immigrant communities you refer to. By 1945, 9 out of 10 had been murdered.

            It is indisputable historical fact that racial ideology has always made violence against black people easier to legitimate in the US than violence against any other group of people, and that the state has waged a near continual overt and covert war against strong, black-led institutions that competed with hegemonic institutions for resources and power for as long as they have existed on American soil.

            I don’t see how seeking a historical cause for the modern struggles of those communities beyond some notion of spontaneous dissolution caused by unstated internal cultural factors that absolves white people and people in power of all responsibility is denying agency. White people with resources undeniably have and have had greater “agency” to make choices than black people. It seems to me that you are trying to absolve them of the lion’s share of responsibility by denying their agency in the active and intentional colonization and exploitation of predominantly black communities.

      3. Off The Street

        One side-effect of moving on some children may show up in school performance. My limited sample size included kids who moved several times and could not develop any sense of rootedness or connection to other kids. That manifested itself in lower reading skills and lack of engagement that continued into adulthood. Age at time of the moves was a factor, as older siblings of those kids had fewer problems than those just still in primary school.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I went to 9 different schools before college.

          It wasn’t until my 20s that it dawned on me that I would know people over time.

        2. Eudora Welty

          I moved a lot as a kid (9 states before age 17), and I developed a very large vocabulary by reading, watching Firing Line on TV, and other things. It is true my sense of rootedness and connection was diminished, but I used the alone-time to read, listen to music, watch stuff on TV.

        3. skippy

          Relocated more times than one has fingers at a very young age between grandparents and mother, further relocation after mother remarried, more dysfunction when mother and partner divorced, back to grandparents, grades in school were not correlated to events. Albeit would still get A+ and then D or C depending on teacher and classroom enviroment.

          Disheveled… I can engage with anyone now face to face, low socioeconomic or high,,,, your anecdotal observation vs. mine…

      4. nonclassical

        ..after 3 or 4 or more “state histories” leading to alternative historical instruction on such as Civil War, one does begin to question authority…

    2. Anonymized

      I think a lot of this is because the US (and Canada, Australia, etc.) was colonized by people who literally left their homelands because they thought conditions would be better somewhere else. The ones who stayed in Europe are those who didn’t want to leave and passed on those attitudes to their modern-day descendants.The citizens of the colonized countries were raised in a culture that valued a tenuous link to where they lived. Modern-day immigrants from Asia, Africa, etc. are much the same. It’s no coincidence that the only people indigenous to North America are also the ones that fight the hardest when their lands are threatened – see Standing Rock. Settler communities frequently wonder why “they” don’t just move out of the reservations with bad healthcare, food insecurity, lack of jobs, and so on, not understanding that “they” have deep ties to the place where they grew up and that their ancestors fought and died for.

      1. DH

        This is both our strength and weakness. The cultures of the colonized cultures are such that you are what you make of yourself, whereas in Europe and Asia, you are the product of your place and parents.

        Each generation of immigrants is denigrated by the people who came before, but ultimately our culture is built around absorption compared to other parts of the world that are unable to absorb people form different cultures and places. This is important in the future as out birth rate is much less important than in the “origin” countries, because we can literally import our future populations to provide us with future economic security, despite the rhetoric of the Trumps et. al.

  4. flora

    The WSJ makes a comparison (implied) between physical mobility and social mobility (moving up the income/class ladder). While the WSJ article talks about lack of physical mobility for rural area Americans, they say nothing about the fact the US now has the lowest social mobility of all 1st world, industrialized countries. The US has lower social mobility than the UK. It’s not unreasonable for people in rural areas to think their financial situation wouldn’t necessarily improve by moving to the city.

    Thanks for this post.

    1. flora

      adding: in the 80’s and 90’s, as factories moved from the (unionized) rust belt to the (un-unionize) sun belt people did pick up and move. They moved for the jobs. But the good jobs kept moving, right off shore. The luster has gone off the “move for a better job” faith.

      1. nonclassical

        …25,000 new Washingtonians, Seattle era, per month…the “new economy”…(which is likely unsustainable)

        1. Charger01

          LOL, this idea was even mentioned by our terrible governor in a “pod save america” a couple of months ago, albeit in a veiled fashion. Apparently having four days of housing inventory in the urban King County is considered a good thing. People are flocking to the tech sector, but they’re due for a correction anytime.

          1. nonclassical

            ..Your “terrible governor” conveys partisan propaganda…Inslee was conflated “lack of business” knowledgeable by republican propaganda during gubernatorial campaign, for assimilating next to fewest of all congressman campaign contributions…as Cheney told him during secret energy meetings where he was considered safe newbie, (“You have no comprehension of economics”.) Inslee is Economics Grad…

            Cheney’s diatribe led directly to ENRON, canary in coal mine for Wall $treet economic frauds.

            (consult David Cay Johnston; “Free Lunch”, for documentation)

          2. polecat

            Glad I live in a ‘flyover county**’ west of the Greater Seattle Urban Conglomeration. Seattle’s a ‘nice place to visit’ (sort of), but I wouldn’t want to live there … even considering our local shitty economy !!

            ** predicated on economic conditions .. not on electoral votes as per the 2016 election.

  5. Webstir

    Wow. Great catch and a fine analysis on this article Yves. I can identify.

    I originally hail from a progressive MT university city (for Montana that is), but grew up very rural — I commuted 26 miles to high school every day. Today, I live in a tiny, highly conservative (or whatever you want to call it these days), N. Idaho town. As my values are obviously progressive (I’m here, right?) I’m a bit of an insurgent and consequently keep my politics close to my chest for fear of alienating potential business opportunity.

    My career — I’m a jack of all trades plaintiff’s lawyer — fills my days with the trials (literally) and tribulations of the gamut of classes of rural N. Idaho denizen. Now, if you crave true insight into the issue posed by the article, I suggest logging in to what I’ve observed is an anthropological (and evidentiary in my particular case) goldmine: any local town’s “rant and rave” Facebook page. I guarantee, at this point, every town in America under 2500 people has one.

    Here is one particular irony I’ve noticed on the local rant and rave page that seems to parallel the article but is not mentioned …
    People “rant” all the time about the lack of economic opportunity and build threads hundreds of comments long seeking solutions. Within the past two years; however, three different “outsiders have moved to town, bought property, opened businesses, and then made the FATAL mistake of expressing a view on the “rant and rave” page that didn’t jibe with the locals. All three, seriously, all of them have been put out of business because the locals effectively boycotted them.

    The irony? They want jobs. But capitalism likes tolerance.

    1. flora

      From ‘The Music Man’ re businessmen/salesmen and small towns: “…but ya gotta know the territory!” i.e don’t alienate your customers. just my 2¢.

      1. Webstir

        Oh it’s true. The episodes were absolutely cringe-worthy to watch play out in real time. What I’m saying is, this is a feature not a bug of rural towns. Tight networks where rumor and innuendo reign are inherently volatile for the business community. As I alluded, no capitalist worth a pinch of salt will ever set up shop in a geographic area that only allows him to capture a slice of the available demographic. Margins are to tight these days. They want the whole pie buying from them, and often, if the whole pie isn’t buying, they simply can’t make ends meet.

        1. Huey Long

          Tight networks where rumor and innuendo reign

          This feature of small town life is one of the primary reasons that I’ve settled in NYC. My folks were city dwellers who white-flighted to the suburbs in the 70’s, and I clearly remember what it was like being on the outside of a good ‘ole boy network in the small NJ suburb I grew up in.

          That experience coupled with my lack of inate social skills/sensibilities has really turned me off from close knit everybody-knows-everybody communities, save for my labor union which is one of the few places where I do feel a sense of community and camaraderie.

          I think living in such a community has its selling points but I don’t think it’s for everybody, especially not small business owners who don’t grok the local good ‘ole boy network.

          1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

            The two opposite extremes.

            One is where everyone gossips about everything.

            The other, no one in the aparment knows the neighbor has been dead for a while.

    2. polecat

      That happened to a craft brewer in Sacramento this year following on the heals of the 2016 presidential election, as a result of his rather conservative social views he had spouted on Faceborg … or maybe it was Twitted, can’t remember which … All the sjw crowd made a bigggg stink and shut him down RATHER than to simply not patronize his business ! So much for being all so inclusive and .. uh .. ‘democratic’.
      Now granted, it would have behooved said brewer to perhaps not voice his ‘feelings’ on social media, toxic as it often is … however, he had, what was up till then, a popular and thriving business … only to be censored & castigated by ‘the mob’ !!

      1. Mike G

        How did they “shut him down”? The brewery is still there.
        He faced a backlash and boycott due to bigoted comments he stupidly made about groups that comprised many of his customers. He faced a boycott, lost the support of his investors and sold out of the business.

  6. Marco

    People do not want to leave Ogemaw County because it’s a beautiful wonderful place to live. My maternal grandparents owned a cottage on Big Norway and I spent many a perfect childhood summer there. It’s also on the boundary where the boring flat Saginaw Valley gives way to more scenic hilly terrain more reminiscent of the Upper Peninsula. My grandfather would take me on trips into the hills in search of wild leeks. I would move there in a heartbeat (if I could find a job).

    1. Webstir

      Again, the irony. This also true of where I live and people will tell you as much. They don’t want it all “corped” up with service jobs from McDonalds. But propose a mine that will pollute the local river, or propose loosening logging restrictions so they can clear-cut every last tree and the locals will lay out the red carpet. They want the “jobs” of the past back, but they’re not coming back because nobody had the foresight to manage the resources sustainably. Truly, they’re heroes in a black and white world where one way of life prevails over another. But sad martyrs in a complex world of a thousand shades of economic gray.

      1. Off The Street

        One impression I have of the small town and rural challenges is that there appears to be some manipulated forced-choice programming going on. Issues may be framed to the locals in such a way as to nudge or shove the likely results heavily in one direction or another, all without much regard to the role of human beings in the process. The lack of apparent agency in the process is a feature, not a bug.

  7. nonclassical

    …interestingly, for all wailing and moaning regarding “education” in U.S., when confronting an “educated perspective”, who have experience in U.S. and international Ed (who can compare), said experience can be considered confrontational to the heavily propagandized…

    Few are aware, when “comparing” U.S. and international Ed, Western European Ed. becomes aptitude focused after 8th grade; meaning, only those whose aptitude dictate, continue parallel U.S. “general” coursework at secondary level. In other words, comparing science-math scores, one is comparing only those-Euro-whose aptitude define continuation, with scores by all American youth.

    From a “capitalist” viewpoint, it would be more illuminating to compare goals. Euros intend prepare all with working skill, in creation of lifetime taxpayer-payback for full university or vocational equivalent education, healthCARE (as opposed healthPROFIT), etc, (actual social system.)

    When communities are therefore relatively “equal” in worker abilities-skills, choices of lifestyle appear to become less confrontational…social “morality”, as well…

    Goals of education, U.S., are defined by oligarchy preferred “curve” grading system; few “winners”, few “losers”, and majority mediocrity=cheap labor force…

    Answer? Education. Adam Curtis BBC documentaries=one…

  8. Webstir

    I will just throw this out there for anyone to debunk.
    Why do those that “understand” economics think that mobility is all strawberries and orgasms?
    Might it have something to do with the fact that the land presently in the possession of small rural landowners represents the single biggest chunk of wealth the neoliberals have yet to completely tap.
    Move ‘em off the land … get ‘em in wage slave jobs … extract more rent.
    As it ever was …

    1. jonboinAR

      Good point. In the small community in which i dwell, many people have several to 50-80 acres of land, or so. It truly is wealth that they possess.

  9. JohnnyGL

    WSJ and it’s commenters had better be careful what they wish for.

    There’s a possible scenario where people move into the big cities from the countryside in search of insecure employment in the ‘gray’ economy.

    Do they really want to turn NYC into Sao Paulo, Brazil with its favelas and severe problems with organized crime?

    As it stands currently, the US has managed to ‘offshore’ its shanty-towns to places like Newark and Baltimore.

    1. Charger01

      I believe NC had a link in one of the daily link lists that expressed this sentiment. The US Army’s perspective. It was a recruiting video to illustrate what warfighting would become in the 21st century, simply put- urban, low intensity combat with house raids occurring continually in favelas on the East Coast.

    2. B1whois

      First off, thanks for the great article! It really is a fascinating topic. This comment that I’m replying to reminded me of something that happened yesterday. I now live in Uruguay and I was talking to two Venezuelans who are refugees here. Of course they have jobs, but the former dentist is now working as a waiter while he waits for his credentials to be accepted.
      Anyway, I showed him that video of the homeless encampments that was filmed via bicycle. They’re comment was “that’s everywhere, that’s normal”. I replied yeah but now it’s in the US, did you think it was there? To which they replied no, but they were more shocked that no one robbed the bicyclists, as apparently that would also be normal for such a place. So that’s the future for the US then.
      By the way Uruguay is very safe and peaceful place and my Venezuelan friends are happy to be here, but still dearly loved their home country. They didn’t have good opinions of Maduro or chavistas either.

      1. Sutter Cane

        I shared that video on Facebook, and while my American friends were not particularly surprised – they knew it was bad but maybe not quite THAT bad – my European friends were truly shocked.

        I noticed when I first traveled in Europe 20 years ago that Europeans seemed to have a very inflated idea of what the average American’s standard of living is like, as do many people around the world. I guess the same “greatest country in the world” (despite widespread evidence to the contrary) propaganda that has been so effective here at home is working well abroad, too. I think if most rural and working-class Americans could travel to northern Europe or Scandinavia they would absolutely shocked at the difference in standards of living between they and their European counterparts.

    3. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

      TPTB know that favela-style crime is on its way, why else would DHS recently order 4.5 billion rounds of ammunition? DHS? And the free tanks and machine guns from the lovely plains of Afghanistan to a little local police force near you. I seem to recall a piece of paper that said the US would have no domestic-targeted standing army but LOL to that.
      Of course it only happens because people want it to happen, they don’t give a crap. Hey let’s worship the richest guy on Earth as he hoovers up the world economy for himself, the serfs put out of business can be coralled into camps, we’ll livestream footage of UberHero zooming around in space and delivering them boxes of Tampax via his army of drones. Standard Hunger Games stuff.

  10. Jim Haygood

    Speaking of low mobility, check out the suburbs and exurbs of New York City on the map — northern NJ, Long Island, and southern NY state (Orange and Rockland counties). It’s as pale colored (meaning less movement) as southern Mississippi and Alabama.

    Why is this? It’s cultural, in two different aspects: first, a notion that family ties mean one shouldn’t leave. Second, an intensely parochial view that Flyover Country is backward and dangerous, while the NYC region is an isolated island of enlightenment.

    A [liberal Democratic] couple in Paramus N.J. explained to me that in retirement, they would venture as far as Bucks County Pa. (on the Delaware River northeast of Philly). But beyond that far frontier, they asserted, stalk gun-totin’, bigoted reactionaries straight out of Deliverance, all the way to the California coast. Being Jewish, they invoked visions of burning crosses planted on their lawn by marauding klansmen. Sad …

    1. david lamy

      Orange County, NY has two differing types of boomer homeowners: those born in the county who have owned their home for decades and those who moved (primarily from NJ, the Bronx, and Staten Island) and bought a home at some stage of the housing price bubble.
      The irony is that the first group can afford to leave, but their family and personal heritage are here, so why go?
      The second group, which unfortunately includes me (only I originate from a different local than described above) would love to leave but for the beating one would take on a home sale as the market for existing homes is terminally ill.
      Then there is an even larger group of renters who work multiple crap jobs to afford a home who simply cannot allocate the time required to plan a move period.

    2. Huey Long

      Comrade Haygood speaks the truth!

      Having grown up in a town bordering Paramus, NJ I can personally attest to the “everywhere but here is Deliverance” mentality and family ties being huge reasons why people stay put.

      The only thing the good Comrade left out is the “cities are dangerous and are to be avoided” trope that nearly religion in the NYC suburbs/exurbs.

      1. Jim Haygood

        The “cities are dangerous” view was VERY strong back in the crime-ridden 1980s, when Charles Bronson movies were playing on our revenge fantasies and the subways were seen as menacing “electric sewers.”

        Now that many suburbanites have kids living in Brooklyn and are actually willing to venture there to visit, the city is perhaps not seen as being so threatening anymore.

    3. Propertius

      I once attended a holiday party thrown by one my half-brother’s Harvard Med colleagues. At it, I met this quite charming 80-ish retired Art History professor from one of the Boston-area universities who informed me (with evident self-satisfaction) that she had never in her life been south of Washington, DC or west of Pittsburgh. I’ve often wondered what her mental map of the US must have been – I suspect it consisted of New England, New York, and a sliver of the mid-Atlantic states, surrounded by an amorphous blob with the legend “Here Be Dragons!”

      1. Jim Haygood

        This view is made quite explicit in the late Paul Fussell’s book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.

        Long before Hillary Clinton articulated the concept, Fussell described any location outside the Bos-Wash Acela corridor as geographically deplorable.

        Better to live in a tiny garage apartment at a “good address” in tony Greenwich CT, Fussell implies, rather than a sprawling ranch with mountain views in some regrettable nowhere place like South Dakota.

        Needless to say, I disagree. :-)

  11. Ep3

    Those aren’t houses, they are trailers.
    West Branch, along with Taylor and a few other suburbs of Detroit, helped to coin the term “trailer trash” or “white trash”.

    1. Ep3

      West Branch is not rural. It is a continuation of the concrete jungle that is Detroit. But it only became this way in the last 65 years, especially since white flight. Those people still remember a time when West Branch was rural.
      Also, even though it is talked about the support system to help people eat and pay bills, most of the residents are strongly conservative.

      Regarding the lady trying to move to Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids is polar opposite of Detroit. Everything is clean and new. Conservatism runs strong in Grand Rapids. And the population of minorities is much smaller and confined to certain sectors of the city and surrounding suburbs, so that whites run prominent majorities.

      1. Code Name D

        2nded. I fear this artical fails to consider comuting and bed-room comunities. Here in Kansas, its prticaly the rule to work in cities, while livingin “satilight” communits that can be 200 miles away. My coworker, while working in Wichita, lives in Hutchinson, which is just under 1 hour trip each way. It’s why cars play such an important role here.

    2. tegnost

      is that the same as deplorable, or are there degrees of sub human-ness that you can clarify for me?

  12. Mark Gisleson

    These areas will recover…after the banks have taken everything. After the oligarchs finish consolidating their wealth, these towns will see former residents return, buying up cheap properties and spreading the wealth much like expatriate Boomer retirees in Latin America.

    This has always been true of ‘successful’ rural communities where the ‘good’ jobs come from at most a handful of employers.

    Burlington, WI, is in the heart of Paul Ryan’s CD. The good jobs come from Republican legislator Robin Vos’s family and friends, and no one in town will speak ill of them. $10/hr is peak wage, groceries are much more expensive than in nearby IL, rents are just as high as they are in WI cities. More troubling, local hospital chains are very aggressive in over-testing and over-treating illnesses IF you can pay.

    Foxconn (if they really build) will create jobs for Burlington but the commute will probably be at least 40 miles a day (area lacks population density and workers will drive great distances for those wages, including many from IL). Foxconn can’t save these workers. Only $15 and single payer can help them.

  13. fresno dan

    Another obstacle to mobility is the growth of state-level job-licensing requirements, which now cover a range of professions from bartenders and florists to turtle farmers and scrap-metal recyclers.

    Turtle farmers???? Where might I buy these turtle seeds?

    I think turtle ranchers is more apt – to which I say, “turtle ranchers???”
    They are out on the ranch on horse back (or do they now use those little 4 wheel utility vehicles?) to herd their turtles?
    ‘Jeb, move that here herd over to the lower forty, which I guess is about 300 feet over yonder’
    ‘OK trail boss, that should take about 3 weeks….’


    1. J.Fever

      It’s Turtle farmer alright I just looked it up on the internet raising them for food for China

  14. Susan

    “The Journal’s basis for concern is that having more workers stuck in place is bad for groaf. But despite providing a good window into the problem in a compressed space, there are no suggestions as to what to do, nor any indication that the paper might address those issues in a later companion piece.”

    Okay. Made me look. Apparently I don’t read NC enough. So down the rabbit hole I went. Pretty interesting rabbit hole. Per The Architect Who Couldn’t Sing, I was struck by this thought: Is J.D. Alt the quick reincarnation of Barthelme with MMT spice added in?

    and this: “They point to the safety net the community provides—a helping hand to pay bills, or the way people come together when a neighbor is diagnosed with cancer. “One of the big cultural divides when people move from small towns to cities is this feeling that you can’t be involved in your community,””

    So the challenge for me, living in a streetcar suburb (pop 46,000) of a rustbelt city, is how to rekindle community here without moving. Here, where people, neighbors are their JAWBS and the main topic in the rant and rave forums is the sharp rise in property tax to fund schools, which it turns out is not just wallet anxiety, but coded racism.

    Oddly, after having moved as a child (military family), I have decided to stick (see Wendell Berry’s “boomers and stickers”) and find a way to knot a lee community. Seems community and root is often at the crux of so many dead ends. Humanity has been loosed upon the world as a result of this cheap energy era. Sorta like soil in the dustbowl era. Hmmm… food for thought.

  15. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    …she clashed with her swim coach. As a conservative Christian, she also found the cultural divide on campus difficult to bridge. Students smoked pot, engaged in casual sex and had parties at their parents’ homes behind their backs

    Does it

    1. Hinder college learning?
    2. Enhance learning?
    3. It’s neutral on academic work. But it prepares the student for the diversity and perhaps distractions (for those who see that way) of the real world…call it non-academic learning.

    1. Beans

      Tom Wolfe wrote “I am Charlotte Simmons” several years ago about exactly this.
      Much of what passes for non-academic learning at University campuses these days can be really bad news for young women – not just those from a Christian conservative background. In the case of Taylor Tibbetts, it appears that the envirnoment hindered her ability to learn, which is a shame. Just because she chose not to engage in the same behavior doesn’t mean she was not welcoming of diversity or focused preparing for the world beyond the University.

  16. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Another obstacle to mobility is the growth of state-level job-licensing requirements, which now cover a range of professions from bartenders and florists to turtle farmers and scrap-metal recyclers. A 2015 White House report found that more than one-quarter of U.S. workers now require a license to do their jobs, with the share licensed at the state level rising fivefold since the 1950

    Bartending schools, florist licence classes, turtle farmer license classes, etc, cost money.

    Will they be covered under free-college tuition?

  17. DH

    The economic struggle in rural and small/mid city America is somewhat puzzling as there are a lot of reasons today why things should be going fairly well. I live in a mid-sized city in Upstate NY and here are some observations:

    1. Housing is inexpensive. The median home price in our county is about $120k. For good suburban houses in good school districts, assume that a home can be bought for about $100/sf of home. As a result, there are few homes built and sold that cost over $500k. There are many weeks that not a single home sale reported in the local paper was over $500k. As a result, housing costs are low. That makes it difficult to move to a big city, but makes it cheap to live here. A $50k/yr income allows one to buy a nice affordable home.
    2. The combination of the Interstate system and hub-and-spoke airline travel makes pretty much everywhere easily accessible for business travel and shipping of goods. I can drive to major cities totaling almost 100 million people in less than 5 hours. I can get almost anywhere in the world in two airplane flights. Tickets are more expensive than in the big cities with major airports, but my airport is less than 30 minutes from my house and office at rush hour.
    3. The internet is available in the small and mid-sized cities (a bit more problematic in very rural areas). So I can communicate with anywhere on the planet instantly, sending large files etc. People can work from home easily if they want to. This would have been very difficult even 10 years ago.
    4. Fed Ex, UPS, and USPS can move documents and goods from our areas to any major city in North America by 10 am the next morning. You can get almost anything delivered by the next day if you want to pay the premium for overnight delivery.
    5. Many of the local communities appear to want to lock in their vision of the what the community was in the 1950s, and will turn down many economic opportunities to lock that vision in place. I think there needs to be more vision and creative thinking, instead of just pining for an often erroneous vision of yesteryear (like the Make America Great Again slogan).

    So the baffling thing to me has been the inability of the United States to use the technological developments over the past 50 years to provide for an effective work force in inexpensive small and mid-sized communities. It used to be that you HAD to be in the big cities to be able to interact efficiently and effectively with many other people. That is not the case anymore. The rural population may need to drop some ( long-term trending going back over a century), but it should not be necessary to move to NYC or SF.

    1. FluffytheObeseCat

      Many of the local communities appear to want to lock in their vision of the what the community was in the 1950s, and will turn down many economic opportunities to lock that vision in place

      This. Just like the example above in regards to small town northern Idaho. Problem is, too many people with get up and go have get up and gone from these places for decades. Middle aged, perennially risk averse Taylor Tibbets don’t make towns grow, or even keep them stable. They don’t do any harm either, but they don’t provide the spark that keeps an economy lively and healthy.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      The move to having people work remotely is being reversed. Too many people:

      1. Need to be around other people

      2. Aren’t disciplined enough to work at home

      3. Are disciplined enough to work at home but push the margin of how much they can slack off

      4. Could be disciplined enough to work at home but have distractions, aka children.

      Plus the boss has less to do. And a lot of businesses benefit from the idea-sharning that happens formally and informally when people congregate at work.

      1. HotFlash

        So the baffling thing to me has been the inability of the United States to use the technological developments over the past 50 years to provide for an effective work force in inexpensive small and mid-sized communities.

        In my nearly 7 decades, I have concluded that where there is a will, there is a way. If there is a chorus of “no way!”, take that as a sign of ‘no will’.

        So, in regard to your question, They can’t make enough money on it. Too busy with lower-hanging fruit, I guess?

  18. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    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…

    Many West Branch residents say that the town’s economic woes aren’t enough to make them leave. They point to the safety net the community provides—a helping hand to pay bills, or the way people come together when a neighbor is diagnosed with cancer. “One of the big cultural divides when people move from small towns to cities is this feeling that you can’t be involved in your community,” says David J. Peters, associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University. “You feel


    to change large cities.”

    That was the key impression I got from a first-hand recount of a recent trip through the American mid-west by a commenter here – groups of out-of-shape seniors after decades of chlorinated chicken and whatnot celebrating friends birthdays – that they still have each other, a sense of community,, in their 80’s, oblivious to the health effects of eating organic, high fiber, low fat, and doing yoga by the ocean of fresh, clean air.

    We want life to be better; until then, even as we strive to improve, who are we median-income powerless burghers to say we have it better?

  19. Sutter Cane

    At the risk of coming across as one of those “overwhelmingly hostile” commenters, Taylor Tibbets sounds like exactly the kind of person I left my small hometown to get the hell away from.

    I feel a lot of sympathy for anybody like me growing up there now, though, as the paths that led me out of my small town are either gone, or prohibitively expensive. I don’t know what advice I would give to a younger version of myself today.

    1. Marbles

      Lurking in the background is our cultural practice of making 18 year old choose what they want to do with the rest of their lives coupled with employer preference for the shiny new objects.

      18 year old me would be surprised that I’m not a famous musician. 40 year old me wonders why I didn’t pursue programming

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      She’s no different than religious people from Afghanistan looking for a better life in, say, a city in Germany.

      And she found life not suitable for her, so she moved back to her economic desert.

    3. Mike G

      No-one is forcing a college student to partake in partying. If you’re group-oriented, you can find like-minded serious students even at “party schools”.
      The issue may be when you come from a small town where you expect everyone to think and act the same and be subject to your dis/approval, and get offended and upset when others are doing activities or expressing views you don’t like.

  20. PKMKII

    I agree that the cultural barriers are a problem for those looking to get out, but WSJ is pandering to their audience (and their owner) by emphasizing on the “Bright young student kept down by hedonism and liberal college professors” angle. There’s plenty of sex and drug use in rural counties, so I don’t buy for a moment that somehow their fragile innocence is getting shattered by the amoral, unorthodox lifestyle of urban areas. And this may be tit for tat, but k-12 schools, public and private, in rural areas have plenty of conservative propaganda pushed by teachers.

    There are a lot of things central to rural culture, though, that don’t translate to urban areas. Hunting would be the most obvious, and fishing to a lesser extent, dependent on where the urban area is. But also the cultural that develops when one has a lot of green space surrounding their house, when there’s buffer room between your property and the adjacent one. The way you see yourself and your relation to the world around you is different, and some people just can’t adjust to that.

    1. Sutter Cane

      If anything there is MORE drug use, per capita given the smaller population if not in total – see the meth and opioid epidemics.

      Just as much sex, too, the main difference being there is less access to sex ed or birth control in rural areas, so there is also a lot more teen pregnancy.

  21. Cat Burglar

    That white spot on the map in north central Oregon, with the lowest level of population mobility, is where I work.

    Reasons people don’t leave sort out a little differently for residents, depending on your income level. At the top, the landowners don’t need to move. Public service employees — teachers, land management agency workers, law enforcement, and local government and federal agency workers — have largely secure employment, and the possibility of transfer to other areas.There are a few skilled craft people like electricians, pump repair people, and mechanics, and other small business people. Long-time ranch workers separate out into the stably employed, who are relatively skilled and often highly trusted, and a constantly circulating group that might or might not be skilled, but often have troubles with the law, substance overuse, and relations with their employers.

    Almost every one of them say that they want to live where they are, an area that fits into the category “economic desert” coined by an article in NC last week.

    For the lowest income group — presumably the people that economics would prescribe mobility for — there are real advantages out in the boonies: rent is low. If they wanted to move into the city, saving a grubstake for living expenses for a two-month job search might take half the year, if no crisis like car repair or a large bill intervened — the move would represent a high-risk gamble that could see them and their families on the street or in a shelter. And life would be no picnic if they “succeeded” in finding a job. And they might not own a car, because they are not allowed to drive, but instead get around on a riding mower or bicycle.

    Rural area social networks can be plenty oppressive, but also can give job-search advantages for lower income people. There is almost no depersonalized hiring — both employer and employee usually know all about each other, and the possible risks on each side. Jobs that are episodic and casual don’t have much of a guarantee of stable income, but do give workers some ability to regulate how much they have to do work that sucks, or work for a boss that sucks; a couple days’ casual work by someone might mean a rancher will discover how skilled that person is, and line them up for a permanent job. Person-to person and church networks often ease childcare work. Recent arrivals from rural Mexico are often highly skilled and find the rural social life more familiar than the city. Immediate access to public lands is considered a boon by every class, even if they are against “big government”.

    It is still a desperate, fearful life, going from crisis to crisis — but undertaking the risk of “moving into town” is seen as not worth it. Out here, peoples preference curves don’t fall into the same place as an economist’s. As the guy shoeing my aunt’s horses said a few years ago, ” Nobody lives out here to get rich.” And everyone out here would love to tell the WSJ commenters exactly where to put the idea that they should move to the city.

    1. polecat

      I believe the World to gradually become bigger again, as big central government influence, and largess, wains … together with ever disfunctional and crapified infrastructure. People may once again grow up never having ventured any farther than the next village or town … a regression toward the historical mean for the better part of humanity, which may not be such a bad trend if localities can find ways to sustain themselves with the basics of living e.i. food, shelter, basic utility functions, etc. . ‘Globalism’, as is currently practiced, will burn itself out !

  22. mirjonray

    I was very sad to read about West Branch. I grew up about 40 miles from there and at least in the 1970’s, 1980’s and probably at least well into the 1990’s, West Branch had the reputation among neighboring areas as being the town that really had its act together. There were a lot of successful farms nearby, but it was a lot more than just a farming community. There were small factories, an excellent hospital with wonderful doctors, a high school with (almost unheard of in that part of the state) both an auditorium AND a swimming pool, and lots of great retail shopping (relatively speaking) that just got better and better over the years.

    West Branch not only brought in local farmers but people from a wide swath of NE and central Michigan, particularly after their outlet mall opened. I can remember in the 1970’s the local high school students put on top-notch plays that attracted bus loads of kids from many miles away. After Kmart and even after Walmart opened, West Branch’s downtown didn’t die. The city spiffied up its downtown area and was able to successfully attract visitors away from Hamburger Hill, which was the strip mall/national retail chain/fast food area on the outskirts of town.

    I should also add a quick note that the town also had a huge advantage because it was just off of the I-75 freeway.

    Although I never considered West Branch to be a true tourist town (and people could disagree with me with good reason) , there’s no denying that it’s surrounded by beautiful forests, hills, lakes and streams. Just last autumn I drove up I-75 from Detroit, drove up over the hill that overlooks West Branch and was completely blown away by the gorgeous fall colors. I have seen that sight many times but it still takes my breath away even after all these years.

    West Branch was no hillbilly haven. Sure, some people lived in trailers, and it had its trailer trash like most other towns. But for the most part people lived in modest but well-kept homes, and it was always a delight to talk with the locals. They might not have all been college grads, but they were well-mannered, well-spoken, and extremely friendly.

    West Branch had the reputation for being able to deal with any economic crisis du jour thrown its way and for coming out stronger each time.. It’s very sad to see now that even West Branch is running out of options. I know this sounds corny, but if West Branch can’t deal with its bad fortunes, then it’s almost impossible for other neighboring communities to be able to do so.

    1. nonclassical

      …teaching with “Department of Defense Dependent’s Schools”, families of farmers whose properties had been foreclosed were in constant evidence. There is also a term for those who lost family farms, who thereupon commit suicide…

      Contrast with “International Schools”, or “Waldorf”, or “Montessori, Europe, is obvious. D.O.D.D.S. Schools do find dedicated staff, who love living outside states…largely in small towns-villages…

      Some military families live off-base, in villages, communities, even native villages around the world…

  23. RTR

    “Last of My Kind” by Jason Isbell

    I couldn’t be happy in the city at night
    You can’t see the stars for the neon light
    Sidewalk’s dirty and the river’s worse

    The underground trains all run in reverse
    Nobody here can dance like me
    Everybody’s clapping on the one and the three
    Am I the last of my kind?
    Am I the last of my kind?

    So many people with so much to do
    The winter’s so cold my hands turn blue
    Old men sleeping on the filthy ground
    They spend their whole day just walking around
    Nobody else here seems to care
    They walk right past them like they ain’t even there
    Am I the last of my kind?
    Am I the last of my kind?

    Daddy said the river would always lead me home
    But the river can’t take me back in time
    And daddy’s dead and gone
    The family farm’s a parking lot for Walton’s five and dime
    Am I the last of my kind?
    Am I the last of my kind?

    I tried to go to college but I didn’t belong
    Everything I said was either funny or wrong
    They laughed at my boots, laughed at my jeans
    Laughed when they gave me amphetamines
    Left me alone in a bad part of town
    Thirty-six hours to come back down
    Am I the last of my kind?
    Am I the last of my kind?

    Mama says God won’t give you too much to bear
    That might be true in Arkansas
    But I’m a long, long way from there
    That whole world’s a lonely, faded picture in my mind
    Am I the last of my kind?
    Am I the last of my kind?
    Am I the last of my kind?

  24. jonboinAR

    I am one who moved from an urban environment (in California) to a rural one. This was in the early part of this century. In California I found myself moving all over the place and lived in several different cities. I was mobile, but somewhat rootless. I had skills in a couple of trades. In the urban environments of LA and the Bay Area I was able to ply those where ever I went. Now, having grown up in those areas and spent my work life there I have to say I was never completely unconnected in my area of work. I could call people I knew and get leads. I could walk onto many construction sites and know someone. I was never really anxious about being able to find a job. Having grown up in the area, I was never a complete outsider professionally or socially, except maybe once, which I found wierd and unsettling. However, I moved from apartment to house to apartment, continually, it seemed, and up and down the state several times. I had not the confidence in my earning ability to even try to marry and have kids. I couldn’t really plan for retirement. Economically, even though I made a bit of money sometimes, for me and many of those around me, it was more or less just survival. Looking back, the big culprit in all of this life of just hanging on financially was the cost of housing. It just kept soaring. I rarely had my own place. It was always roommates whether apartment or house. The living environment, as you might imagine, was always fairly unstable. I remember one point, maybe in the early ’90’s when I considered buying a house. Then the cost of housing jumped again and that was over. It soon got to where even sharing a house a large portion of everyone’s income was going to rent. Food was expensive, too, but housing the real killer. Again, saving and planning became increasingly impossible.

    Well, eventually, by virtue of the Internet, I met my lovely wife who lived in a small town in the middle of the country. I didn’t hesitate much. With little, I felt, to lose, I married her and moved here. Now, again, I have had my blessings. Marrying a local, I was immediately an honorary local to a good extent. People helped me. I worked in construction, and, briefly, in a plant.

    I’m (we’re) also fortunate that this town also does not have the dire problems of the modern classic distressed rural community. It has several operating small plants and is deeply involved in the very much thriving poultry industry. Now, say what you want about the evils of the poultry business, it booms. It provides lots of jobs here, in the plants. They pay poorly, but have quite decent benefits compared to what I was used to before. Everyone with land around here has “chicken houses”. The investment required for these things basically indentures the landowner/chicken house operator to the poultry corporation, but folks seem to be satisfied with the arrangement.

    I can’t speak really to the problems of the distressed rural community, but I can speak of mine and presume that some of what I’ve experienced applies to others, distressed or no. People really do support each other. You wave at every vehicle that passes assuming you know them. My wife and I go to several benefits a year which consist of a buffet dinner followed by an auction in which the local businesses have donated necklaces, cordless drills, boxes of ammo, etc., and women have provided pies and pans of cookies. Everyone laughs uproariously when two stubborn individuals drive Miss Myrtle’s strawberry cake above $100. The benefit itself may be for the financial difficulties of a family with a disabled child or may be the annual fundraiser for the local fire department. At church on Sunday all of the local people’s health issues are discussed and it’s found out whether anyone has visited so-and-so this week.

    The major financial improvement I’ve found coming here has been with the cost of living, most specifically with housing. It’s really like living in a different country. My first job here while earning 1/3 of what I made in California doing the same thing, financially I was making it about the same as there. We lived on relative’s property at first. Although not our own, it felt more stable than a rental with roommates in California. The rent was probably about 1/4 to a similar place on the West Coast. Soon we bought a house. Me, buying a house! Ha! You’re kidding, right? My work circumstances have improved gradually, our house is well on the way to being paid for, and we’re planning for retirement. This just does not happen for me in a California city working a working class job. And that’s why I’d find it hard to recommend to someone in a truly distressed rural town to take off for the city. Financially it’s likely to not be too much better for you, if for no other reason than the price of housing. (No real problem in my experience in finding a job, though!) You’re also pretty likely to be really all alone.

    1. manymusings

      Thanks for sharing this experience. Feels like it’s in a similar vein to what I posted below. Have to stop assuming that chasing “economic opportunity” to the cities is what people want, or that having an easier time getting that next (precarious) job is really a meaningful “opportunity” at all.

    2. HotFlash

      I am US-born (MI) and have lived in Canada since 1969. Well, I do occasionally go back to visit, less and less to be sure, but every time I do I am shocked again by the notices in laundromats and community bulletin boards for fundraisers for someone’s child who has cancer, who broke their leg, who got burned, or some man who had a heart attack, or some woman who has breast cancer. I have to wonder, do you guys just have a government to pay for bank bail-outs and aircraft carriers?

  25. kurtismayfield

    One thing that is forgotten is credit ratings.. good luck moving to the “Enlightened urban enclaves” without a long good credit history, or a cosigner. And apartments want credit scores for every adult in the household.

    1. Louis

      One thing that is forgotten is credit ratings.. good luck moving to the “Enlightened urban enclaves” without a long good credit history, or a cosigner. And apartments want credit scores for every adult in the household.

      Requiring a consigner if you don’t meet income or credit requirements is if you’re lucky. A sizable number of places won’t rent to you if you don’t have proof that you make 2.5-3 times the monthly rent in income–this requirement isn’t limited to luxury rentals either.

      1. subgenius

        I live in hell-A, and lost a place (and credit rating) following a divorce…I am still trying to find a way to end my current status of being technically homeless the last few years.

        As far as I can tell, the only way is to succeed in a large enough way financially.that you get respect. What baffles me is how much wealth is in the hands of people lacking any real skills (as far as I can tell), and how hard it is to find lucrative work with developed skills if one is over about 35.

  26. Oguk

    More subtly, media fragmentation and the diminished role of national broadcast networks has played a role. When I was a kid, you had ABC, NBC, and CBS, plus a local public broadcasting station. All the networks reinforced cultural norms.

    So glad to see this acknowledged, Yves. I have always felt the same, even into the mid-80’s, but it’s probably true that a whole generation or more in this country that has grown up with cable is more polarized culturally. When I read stories about how youth is leaning left, I think, well, that’s probably true in Boston and Chicago and the Bay area, but is it true among rural youth? Probably not. And while the cultural norms of TV had their problems, those shows often made an effort to connect with “average people” and then challenge attitudes and stereotypes. But the flourishing of grassroots efforts of all sorts continue to prove we are not anywhere near locked into a rigidly stratified society – yet.

  27. John Beech

    With the point regarding state licensing requirements, which I read about in another article here on NC, yesterday (regarding eyebrow threaders in TX being required to have 5X the hours of a EMT), I nearly fell out of my chair. Thus, licensing is a real issue. Anyway, I never knew eyebrow threaders existed (but watched a couple videos on YouTube and it looked easy enough so I suspect I can probably do it myself if I wanted to), and the fact the state of TX would get involved, much less impose such onerous licensing requirements, is a joke on we the people. How sad!

  28. RickM

    Late to the party but, related:

    “And many chest-thump about how they got out of small town America, airbrushing out of the picture that they escaped when college was cheaper and good jobs were easier to land.”

    I live in a declining, racially polarized, medium-sized city that 40 years ago was one of the major manufacturing and transportation hubs in my state. One recent afternoon after work, I played with golf with a local, my age. He was railing at the “lazy thugs” (use your imagination) who just won’t go to work, so I asked him a little about himself. He graduated from high school in 1973 but wasn’t ready for college, so he went to the local textile mill (long since moved to Mexico, then SE Asia) and was hired on the spot for $4.25 and hour, including benefits: time and a half for overtime more than 8 hours per day or 40 hours per week, health insurance that had meaning, paid vacation, sick leave, a defined pension benefit (long since dissolved). According to the BLS inflation calculator, $4.25 in June 1973 is equivalent to $23.55 in June 2017, for a high school graduate. I know, because I made roughly the same wage in a unionized heavy chemical plant that very same summer in a different small city. 12 weeks was more than enough to finance a year at our flagship state university, where my full freshman tuition was $538.50 and a dorm room was $405.00 for three quarters. A paltry $943.50 for the entire year. I remember because I wrote the checks! My interlocutor eventually followed me to college and today has been the beneficiary of it all.

    So, anyway, I asked him how an 18-year-old of today, who has absolutely no such employment opportunity, would manage our burden, when current costs at the same university are $17,922, or $3,234 in 1973 dollars (a 243% increase). He had never stopped to consider the differences. Never. Not once. He replied, “I never really thought about it like that.” Suffice it to say, I reminded him that the $7.50 per hour ($1.35 in 1973 dollars) at the local convenience store is less than the minimum wage ($1.60 per hour) when we were 18 years old…But I don’t think the lesson stuck. More than likely, he is still exercised about the “lazy thugs” and “poor white trash” who won’t go to work.

  29. manymusings

    This is despite the fact that rising poverty and other social stresses mean even more people want to get out than ever.

    Do we know this? Are there sources on it, and what exactly do they say? The rationales expressed in the WSJ article seem to express something different — that when things get so bad, people might make the calculation it’s better to stay. E.g., faced with the callousness and indifference and congestion of the city, the inconvenience and nickel-and-diming involved in every aspect of everyday life (e.g., eking out the time and transport to a laundromat, shelling out per wash, or trying to hand-wash and hoping for the time and space to dry), the beat-you-down anonymity and unabated exclusion of a city — that with all that and more, people prefer to stay in their “little corner of the world” rather than deal with it and take there chances. They prefer to stay where a familiar neighbor might trade laundry for internet, or a fellow church member might cover a bill, or help with some groceries.

    To be clear: I’m not trying to glorify life in a blighted town, and I’m pro-mobility; I’m just saying, people are rational and realistic, and my experience is that people often place a lot of value on roots, friends, networks. Professionals in (or near) cities pay hundreds if not thousands for the services to make their beleaguered lives feel livable, because cities don’t breed those types of relationships and networks — no one has time, life isn’t organized that way.

    Seems we should check against (even tacitly) buying into the assumption that wiping out a community’s economy is fine so long as folks easily can leave. Some always will want to stay; some would be glad or inclined to leave, but then if things get uncomfortable enough, they might size up that even with hardship they’re better off to stay.

    I think a jobs guarantee (at least in places where homelessness is rampant and housing markets out of control, which these days seems like everywhere) should include a way for work to “earn” a property right; that someone who collects garbage, builds a garden or food bank, patches a road or sidewalk, builds a handy website or updates a municipal database should have the option to be compensated with a parcel of land and a home (I’m not taking some McMansion — why do zoning laws virtually everywhere ban small homes?).

    I realize property ownership is not some fix-all or the only answer (or even the best answer), but the point is we shouldn’t be so obsessed with enabling people to move, and could put more focus on how to create conditions for vibrant communities in places where industries have left. Basic income and job guarantees assume those industries aren’t necessarily coming back. Maybe you put some money in pockets and it all takes care of itself…. but I think there’s also some work in thinking about what community looks like if not orbiting around industry and assuming once given the chance, folks will leave.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That is what the people in the article said. In a town of merely 2000 people, it’s possible to get a decent sample. They want to leave and can’t. It’s very hard for most of them to get by at all. Many try to leave and then come back, or can’t get a job outside West Branch despite very concerted effort, like the graphic artist. I left out this quote:

      Driving through town, Denise Lawrence, the mayor of West Branch, offered a bleak assessment. “The county is the closest thing to bankrupt that you could be,” she says.

      Bloomberg ran a story on a West Virginia town and the story was the same. And see the comment from the reader above, that if West Branch can’t adapt to the changing economy, no rural place can.

      1. manymusings

        I don’t regard whom the WSJ decided to interview and then quote to necessarily be a “decent sample”; plus even that sample doesn’t seem necessarily to support the headline and thesis of the article. Looks like a 21-yr-old who professes not to want to be “that kid who just stays here forever,” an anxiety that could be uttered by about a million 21-yr-olds from anywhere who don’t know yet whether they will be that kid, or what they want at all; a 38-yr-old graphic designer who reports difficulty with age discrimination (fair enough, take at face value); the mayor, who might have had some interesting insights to offer, but is quoted by the WSJ only for the helpful comment that the county is essentially bankrupt; and then two others who didn’t express feeling “stuck” so much as reveal a cost-benefit analysis — i.e., how they sized things up and what version of “suck” they want to live with. Readers might be intended to infer that they are “stuck,” but that’s not what they’re plainly self reporting.

        I also notice the WSJ article uses its foray into life of the non-one-percent to blame rural “stuckness” on regulation (ok, state licensing, which is a ripe target, but also one more fairly examined in context around other local regulatory issues rather than just easy potshots); the safety net (getting all these benefits like medicaid is keeping people “stuck!”); and cultural/campus debauchery and godlessness that alienates rural sensibilities.

        These answers and explanations (not from residents themselves, but from the experts quoted to interpret them for us) are juxtaposed with the uncited assertion that this lack of mobility (for all these terrible lefty-commie reasons!) “is choking off the labor supply for employers in areas where jobs are plentiful” — a statement that under normal circumstances should be self-refuting, in that normally if jobs are plentiful but can’t attract labor, maybe you have to raise wages or other benefits/enticements.

        But here’s an idea from the WSJ: you could loosen licensing hurdles (probably a lot of sensible reform needed here — but WSJ cares because would lower costs for corporations to employ foreign and out-of-state labor to put further downward pressure on wages), further obliterate the safety net, and shower more scorn on the lefty-commie hippies corrupting our kids in universities.

        I don’t have some investment in the idea that people don’t, in truth, feel stuck. But apart from the string of experts cited by the WSJ — the words of the handful of actual West Branch residents quoted in the article express something different, or at least more three-dimensional than a simple “stuck” narrative. It would be interesting to hear more about that.

        Agree it’s good to highlight the fallacies around mobility, but one of those fallacies seems to be that geographic mobility is instinctively or universally preferable to a “lower” standard of living.

      2. jonboinAR

        I knew people in the SF Bay Area who had spent their lives more or less in the region and who were trained as graphic artists who worked as au pairs, baby sitters, bar-tenders, etc. One modern problem is that their just aren’t enough high skilled jobs to go around. The maid services, etc. simply have to be required to pay a living wage. In the Bay Area in 2004 when I last was there it seems to me that would have been about $30/hr at the very minimum. I was making more than that as a carpenter, yet living in a room in a friend’s home. I think, though not sure, that the BA is an extreme example for high cost of living.

    2. jonboinAR

      I think that your post finishes mine somewhat, applying the analysis my anecdote lacks.

  30. Olivier

    Yes, you write ” many [possible remedies] would fly in the face of conservative ideology. Better national safety nets would reduce the dependence on neighbors and the community as sources of support”. But this is exactly what so-called conservatives ideologues are saying: that federal assistance programs weaken and destroy communities, atomizing civil society and promoting anomy. And here you sound like you approve of that.

    As for state licensure, I am generally against licensure (except when there is risk to life) on freedom grounds but let us recognize that they work both ways: by preventing people from leaving for greener pastures they also protect local jobs pools by making it harder for out-of-state migrants to come in and increase competition.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Relying on communities to provide safety nets does not work. As a reader pointed out above, if West Branch is having trouble, pretty much every place has to be worse. My uncle lived below the poverty line in small town Maine. He also suffered from diabetes and became almost entirely house bound as a result. Despite being well known and well liked, when a good friend who would run errands for him died, he had to go into a VA nursing home. Had he not had that safety net, I am sure he would have killed himself. Are you really wishing that end on people? In case you missed it, we are already having an AIDS-level death epidemic, between opioid abuse and suicides in small towns among the less educated already (and my uncle had a PhD!)

      And communities are already atomized by virtue of the average job tenure now being only 4.4 years, by two-earner families (wives uses to play a huge role in running community organizations), employers who expect workers to be on call and/or have erratic work schedules, combined with the bizarre requirement that parents pick up their kids after school (further draining time to do anything else).

      1. manymusings

        I don’t think the intended point is that relying on community networks is ideal or preferable. I think it’s more a push-back to conventional economic/political wisdom (obsessed as it is with the agency of the dispossessed, and prodding the citizenry into making correct, market-oriented choices) on the logic and cost/benefit of chasing opportunities wherever they may seem to exist. Not everyone wants to move (or retrain) for a job; and even among those who do, or might, the math often doesn’t pencil out, given current conditions and realities. No question a federal guarantee for a basic standard of living would address both aspirations (but isn’t premised on the moral or intellectual short-comings of the non-rich, so that’s no good….).

  31. Potato Guy

    Very interesting experiences being reported here.

    Our experience is from urban to rural and we wouldn’t change that. If we had lived in the big city we would have made much more money. In the rural area we have more time and fewer restrictions.

    Having experienced Illinois politics all my life and recently enduring a run for state rep, the feedback from rural constituents is “get rid of Chicago and we will be fine”. People in border counties are fleeing to Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri and Kentucky. Not so much for jobs as flight from taxation, corruption, regulation and perceived lack of opportunities. Another common refrain was ” if I could just sell my house I would move in a heartbeat”.

    Our problems are fixable. We have great natural resources and infrastructure. Our culture is being diminished by liberal values that are not congruent with our Christian upbringing. We have heavy debt loads and tax burdens which draw resources from creating families with more than two children. Our culture is fading away.

    Downstate work ethic, values and business acumen and innovation will move us forward. We just need a small revolution to break free of the bondage of corrupt illinois politics.

    Thank you for highlighting this American experience.

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