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.