If Declining Towns 'Deserve to Die,' Where Should Their Residents Go?

Some economists and pundits claim Americans aren’t moving enough, but how people should respond to that is unclear.

U-Haul moving trailers sit in a parking lot in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Moving trailers sit in a parking lot in Biloxi, Mississippi. (Spencer Platt / Getty)

In 2011, economists from the Federal Reserve and the University of Notre Dame issued a working paper called “Internal Migration in the United States.” In it, they concluded that “internal migration has fallen noticeably since the 1980s, reversing increases from earlier in the century.” In other words, Americans are moving less than they used to.

In that paper, and in research since, it’s been shown that the decline in migration holds up across the board, from high-school and college graduates to dropouts. Wealthier people are moving less than they used to, and so are poorer people. Migration from both distressed areas and prosperous areas has declined.

Researchers have resisted coming to any definite conclusions about what underlies this decreased mobility. As Derek Thompson wrote for The Atlantic last year, so far there’s no good one-size-fits-all explanation. There’s also no consensus about what this lessening of internal migration means for the American economy.

But this lack of clarity has not stopped slackening mobility from becoming fodder for arguments about the fates of communities in decline. A popular consensus is developing that because inhabitants are staying put, they have only themselves to blame.

One emblematic argument came from the writer Kevin D. Williamson in a 2016 essay in National Review. “The truth about these downscale communities is that they deserve to die,” Williamson wrote. “Economically, they are negative assets.” To Williamson, the solution was obvious: “They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need a U-Haul.”

That argument seems to have become louder and more insistent lately. In early March, Arthur Brooks, the president of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, told Kai Ryssdal on Marketplace, “The main reason that people who are older wind up being displaced and permanently displaced is because we’re getting less and less mobile.” In the old days, when Brooks was a child, he said, Americans moved all the time. Staying put, he argued, was “anathema to the American experience.” Brooks implied that the idea of staying in a town because people had family there, had lived there most of their lives, or simply loved the place indicated a profound lack of gumption.

His logic was that America was a land of pioneers in covered wagons: If the U.S. economy was going to churn once again for the benefit of all, he argued, “one of the things we also have to do is to get people moving more.”

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, put forward a similar argument in a book released earlier this year, The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. In it, Cowen stressed that this decreased mobility—for low earners as well as high earners—is worrisome. A Time adaptation of the book was headlined “The Unseen Threat to America: We Don’t Leave Our Hometowns.” Other headline writers took it even further. “How American Workers Got Lazy,” blared the Wall Street Journal. An April 25 column in the San Francisco Chronicle was topped with “Americans are lazy and complacent — here’s how.”

Packing up and moving is coming to be seen as an individual’s antidote to an unkind job market. Late last month, writing in The New York Times, the writer and New York University journalism teacher Suketu Mehta encouraged Americans to get out of their hometowns and work abroad. His pitch was directed to the well-off—who, he suggested, might be interested to learn that commercial pilots can earn $300,000 a year in China—as well as to lower earners. For this latter group, he noted, “A 150-peso-an-hour job in an automobile plant in Aguascalientes, Mexico, isn’t the same as a $40-an-hour union job in Detroit; but you will live much better than if you made $8 an hour slinging burgers in Scranton.”

When I read this, I wondered if it was satire. I thought of an acquaintance of mine, John Oatney. He wasn’t about to fly airplanes, nor build cars in Mexico. I’d gotten to know John over the course of reporting my book, Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town, about Lancaster, Ohio. John and his wife, Wendy, had been struggling. She worked at a fast-food franchise. John was often out of work, or working one of a series of temporary jobs in places such as warehouses, loading or unloading trucks.

In November of 2015, while I was away from Lancaster, John called. He wanted some advice. He was considering getting in his car and driving three hours to Kentucky. He didn’t know anybody in Kentucky, and he wasn’t sure just where he might find a job. He couldn’t afford a motel, at least not for long, but, he told me, he could sleep in his car just fine, for a while anyway. The Oatneys owned a house, a tiny bungalow. It carried a mortgage. Wendy could stay there while he looked for work in Kentucky, he said.

“What then?” I asked John. “Suppose you find a job.”

“I could rent a room,” John answered. Wendy could stay in Lancaster to keep working her job and take care of their bungalow.

John knew he couldn’t sell the house. Not only did it need some serious repairs, but given the housing market in town, he’d be lucky to sell it for $40,000. So he’d reconciled himself to living apart from Wendy.

“Why Kentucky?” I asked John.

As it happened, John’s minister in Lancaster was acquainted with a minister in Kentucky, and John hoped his churchman might intercede with the Kentucky colleague to provide help in John’s job search there. It all seemed far too sketchy. I pictured John, alone, sleeping in his car with winter coming.

While Brooks and the others never said moving would be easy, there are questions that they don’t seem to answer: Move to where? To do what? For somebody like John, the work opportunities in Ohio look much the same as they do in Kentucky. John has stocked shelves in an Ohio Home Depot and figured he might be able to land a job stocking shelves in a Kentucky Home Depot. This was not going to represent a vast improvement in John’s circumstances.

Indeed, one theory economists have explored is that the American economy has become “flatter.” As Mai Dao, Davide Furceri, and Prakash Loungani wrote in a 2014 International Monetary Fund working paper, “states’ labor market conditions have been increasingly less dispersed/more similar during normal times.” Whether, or how much, this accounts for a decline in migration is debated, but as the economists Greg Kaplan and Sam Schulhofer-Wohl wrote in a 2012 research paper, “labor markets around the country have become more similar in the returns they offer to particular skills, so workers need not move to a particular place to maximize the return on their idiosyncratic abilities.”

“Idiosyncratic abilities” are one reason why the highly-educated, despite moving less often than they once did, still move around the country more often than those with a high-school degree (or sometimes even a bachelor’s). Someone who specializes in an esoteric but critical field—someone who holds, say, a doctorate in biology—can likely move from city to city more or less at will, while earning ever higher pay. Such a worker will always be in demand. But anybody with a healthy back can do the kinds of jobs John had been doing.

Besides, moving to another state comes with several costs. According to a model developed by the University of Wisconsin economists John Kennan and James R. Walker, those costs can be very high. There’s the obvious expense of moving. On top of that, a move to a more-prosperous area will likely mean a substantial increase in the cost of rent or homeownership, even if a mover’s earnings edge up only a little.

Plus, leaving a town means leaving a community behind. John and Wendy had family, friends, and church acquaintances in and around Lancaster, many of whom had helped the couple at one time or another. John had a job counselor who helped him find work. Wendy had a job. A local charity called Loving Lending had helped them rid themselves of high-interest debt. So while they didn’t have much money, they did have a fair amount of social capital.

That provides comfort as well as financial benefits. A single mother whose own mother helps watch a child while she works would have to pay for childcare if she moved away. Somebody looking for a job might stand a better chance of finding one in a town where he or she had cousins, siblings, and friends who could keep their ears open and provide recommendations.

“It’s not a matter of getting a U-Haul,” Abigail Wozniak, an economist at the University of Notre Dame and a co-author of several migration studies, told me. “It’s a matter of skills, connections, and some other secret sauce that makes a relocation successful. Getting that whole package of things ... costs more than a U-Haul.”

There’s also the question of happiness. Maybe someone would make more money in some other city or town. But many people in Lancaster, Ohio, for example, love their town. Many are trying to rejuvenate it. Is that complacency, or positive civic duty?

The country’s declining migration is being attributed to laziness, a lack of moxie, though the people in Lancaster I know who work two or three jobs might disagree. The new push for Americans to hit the road smacks of resentment. People like John Oatney, and distressed towns, have become inconvenient reminders of the costs of modern capitalism. For years these same towns have been called “the heartland” and “real America,” often by those who supported the very free-market policies that damaged so many communities. Now, rather than confront the root causes, they’re telling people in the real America to pack up and leave.