Why We Don’t Just “Go Where the Jobs Are”


Photo credit: Alan Light, CC BY 2.0.

This week, The Wall Street Journal reports that population mobility is the lowest its ever been—or, at least, it’s the lowest it’s been since we started tracking.

From Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg’s “Struggling Americans Once Sought Greener Pastures, and Now They’re Stuck:”

When opportunity dwindles, a natural response — the traditional American instinct — is to strike out for greener pastures. Migrations of the young, ambitious and able-bodied prompted the Dust Bowl exodus to California in the 1930s and the reverse migration of blacks from Northern cities to the South starting in the 1980s.

Yet the overall mobility of the U.S. population is at its lowest level since measurements were first taken at the end of World War II, falling by almost half since its most recent peak in 1985.

Why aren’t people moving out of economically depressed rural areas? Three reasons, and I bet you can already guess what they are:

  1. They can’t afford it. Moving costs money, and moving to a city with a higher cost of living costs even more money.
  2. When they try to apply for jobs in these cities before moving—instead of taking the plunge and hoping the job follows—they get passed over in favor of applicants who already live there. Without a job lined up, they can’t afford to move.
  3. They also can’t afford to leave behind a supportive community to move to a city where that type of community rarely exists.

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.

There are a lot of other, smaller reasons listed in the article—a hair stylist, electrician, or teacher might have to get relicensed if they cross state lines, and that’s another expense—but it essentially boils down to “it costs a lot to uproot your life, especially when you’re no longer young.”

And then there’s what the WSJ calls the “cultural divide.” They give a few examples of small-town residents who tried to leave their hometowns but felt uncomfortable around everything from marijuana use to casual sex to panhandlers. (If you read the Washington Post’s “Disabled and Disdained,” you know that panhandling is a rural thing as well.)

It’s hard to read that and not think “tough it out, y’all,” but there is a difference between moving from a small community to a larger one, and I know that because I’ve done it. In a small community, everyone is part of your group. Even if you don’t agree with everything everyone else does, you’ve shared enough experiences that you feel connected.

In a larger community, you have to figure out where your group is, and sometimes your people can be hard to find. You don’t have to hang out with the legal weeders or the craft beerdos if you don’t want to. Cities are large and contain enough subcultures that your people probably exist—it’s just that you might only ever find a handful of them, and you might only ever see each other once a month, and yes, that’s going to be a huge difference from seeing everyone you know every day.

But I’m getting off track. The point is that the fewest number of people can afford to move to where the jobs and opportunities are—and if they can’t afford to move, they can’t afford much of anything else, either.

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