Of People, Things, and Places

I’m not quite awake enough yet to deal with reviewing copyedits and reformatting figures for the book-in-process, so while I wait for the caffeine to kick in, let’s talk something simple and cheerful: rural poverty. This week, Vox and the New York Times both touched on this, the former with a story about the food stamp cookbook and the latter with a magazine story about Clay County, KY, spinning off a statistical study of the hardest places to live in the US.

The Vox piece is mostly on poverty in general, and how there’s more to the bad diets of poor people than just lack of money– something I’ve written about before but also includes a brief acknowledgement that poor people in rural areas face different problems, something that’s not handled very well in most discussions of inequality. The Times piece gets more to the heart of the issue, though, noting that the biggest problem with rural areas is that they’re, well, rural. They’re not on major highways, or close to cultural centers, and thus it’s hard to do anything that would draw industry there. As the author notes, this leads to an uncomfortable conclusion:

The queasy answer that economists come to is that it would be better to help the people than the place — in some cases, helping people leave the place. Generally, the wealthier and better educated the family, the more mobile they are. It takes resources to pack up all your things, sign a new lease, pay for gas or a flight and go. That might help explain why more Americans aren’t flocking from places with high unemployment rates to places with low ones, even if those places are surprisingly close together. College graduates, for instance, are several times as responsive to differences in labor demand as those who completed only high school, according to a study in The Journal of Human Resources.

But government policy based less on place and more on people might help ameliorate that trend. “Let’s say I was a hardworking person who lost my job in Harlan, Ky. — the ideal place, really, to go is Williston, N.D.,” Senator Paul said. “People need to be mobile to go there. Some government programs prevent mobility or discourage mobility.” And none encourage it: There are scant federal resources to help the unemployed or the poor in rural areas move to a job or even just a better neighborhood.

This is a topic that’s relevant to my interests because of where I grew up, in a small town in central New York state, during a time when the local industries were all packing up and moving away. I’ve seen a lot of people struggle with this– when I was a kid, it was a rare year that we didn’t see a classmate or two move away as IBM (the biggest white-collar employer in the area) shifted most of its operations to North Carolina– they moved so many people from the Binghamton area down there that in the mid-90’s, you could find Salamida’s Spiedie Sauce in Food Lion supermarkets on the Outer Banks). And now, the high school classmates I’m in contact with on Facebook are spread over a huge range, many down South, but a lot still in the Broome County area.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Times article about stuff on the far side of the Tappan Zee bridge without a couple of bits that get my back up a little– though it should be noted that this is vastly better than the usual pith-helmeted anthropological reporting they churn out. The chief problem is the way this is treated as a purely abstract economic issue. There’s a faint tone of puzzlement that it’s difficult to get people to move, and a quote from a Kentucky official saying “People are really connected to place here.”

But this sort of circles back around to the problem noted in the Vox piece. It’s not just the place, but the people in the place. The resistance isn’t just that a Kentuckian moving to North Dakota would hate the winters or miss having scenery with more topography, it’s that moving a single family out is often taking them away from a deeply rooted support network. Which is, in large part, how rural families cope with issues in the Vox piece, of lack of time and so on– if you’re in a place where you have lots of close relatives, you can help each other out with extra food and emergency child care and so on. And even less tangible stuff like general emotional support– the benefits of just having somebody close you can vent to over coffee or beer after a bad day are tremendous but hard to quantify.

And that’s what makes this a harder problem than the raw numbers might suggest. While on paper it might seem like a no-brainer to move from collecting disability in Kentucky to working a better-paying job in North Dakota, there are a lot of difficult-to quantify other factors that play in. The pay might be better in North Dakota, but if moving means finding and paying for child care that used to be provided free by a nearby relative, well, the pay better be a whole lot better. There are also cascading effects on folks left behind– if moving away means leaving a less-mobile relative without somebody to run errands and help around the house, that has negative consequences for others that might outweigh individual financial benefits. And so on.

So, while I agree that the Times piece correctly identifies one of the issues at the heart of this, I don’t think they’ve really grasped the full dimensions of the issue. Particularly in small communities, people aren’t just isolated units, but are bound into a whole web of interactions that go beyond the readily measurable economic factors (which is not to say that they couldn’t be measured, just that it’s not as straightforward as comparing salaries). And given the background you need to have to end up writing for a major national media outlet, or working on government poverty policy, there’s a systematic bias that prevents this from being fully grasped and incorporated into the discussion.

This has consequences in policy areas beyond simple economics, too– it’s a big and underappreciated factor in things like the debate over fracking (a major and continuing issue in Broome County), as I’ve written about before. A lot of the unpleasantness in the arguments over fracking come from a lack of understanding of the connection between people, places, and things– on both sides of the debate. On the pro-fracking side, I got in a shouting argument over this with some college friends who said “People in that area should sell the drilling rights for shitloads of money, and if the drilling wrecks the local environment, well, they’ll be rich enough to move away.” They were boggled at the idea that “just move away” wasn’t a trivial matter for people in the affected area, in a way that seemed to me to be condescending and borderline insulting.

And on the anti-fracking side, while as a scientist and a squishy liberal I agree that it would be better to leave that gas underground and switch to energy sources that don’t drive climate change, as someone who grew up in Broome County, I totally understand why people are in favor of drilling. It’s not just laziness or Fox News brainwashing or simple greed– shale gas might be the first good economic news for that region since I’ve been aware of economic news. To a lot of people in those communities, fracking represents a lifeline, an infusion of cash into the community that can prevent the need to make the wrenching decision of whether to leave. A lot of the environmental anti-fracking arguments end up in that same condescending “just move away,” because they don’t understand what it’s like to be in that position.

For all that the national political rhetoric pays lip service to salt-of-the-Earth rural communities as the wholesome core of our national character, there’s basically no understanding of the ground-level issues and concerns of those communities. Because the people who are involved in national-level politics and the discussion thereof are, more or less by definition, not the kind of people who understand what it’s like to be strongly tied into that kind of community. The terms of the debate, and the policy options, are set by the class of people who feel free to move away to the cities where policy is made and chin-stroking think pieces about the problems of the rural poor are published.

And that, right there, is probably the biggest infrastructure problem facing rural American communities: that they’re not the sort of places that people who write for the New York Times live.

8 thoughts on “Of People, Things, and Places

  1. Something else that having a little money can buy is the ability to stay connected with the people you left behind in your home town. Both of my parents came from small towns on the Great Plains, and while we were growing up we would take family trips to visit both sets of grandparents (who lived about a day’s drive apart, and 4-5 days drive from where we lived). I see it even more with my foreign-born co-workers, who find a way to bring the family back to the old country every couple of years or so to visit their relatives.

    One possibility is for a family to send somebody where the job is, and he sends money home. This is routine in some communities in the US and throughout the world. But this is hardly an ideal solution, either: who is willing to be the first person from Harlan to try taking a job in Williston? Certainly it gets easier for the others who follow, because they will find a support network of people from their county in place. This is part of why immigrants frequently cluster together (Chinese in my town, Indonesians a couple of towns away, etc.). But in the meantime you have, at least in this country, a group of (mostly) men separated from their families. In countries where both foreign workers and domestic servants are common, like the oil states of the Arabian peninsula, the gender imbalance isn’t as bad, but the issues of separation from family still apply. In other places, women and girls are lured into the sex trade.

  2. Looking back at history, it seems the there are two groups of people who came to the US one group came and essentially stayed where they were for generations, forming tight communities as suggested in KY. (In my background this happened in Southern Indiana, and lasted until after WWII). The other group kept moving every generation, From NJ in 1790 to Ohio to IA in 1840, (other members of the family kept moving west even after that). Of course back then such moving meant cutting your self off from support groups. Now in some cases in terms of immigration preachers led entire communities to come to the US.
    What I take from looking is there must be two different personality types involved. Do we know of sociological studies that determine when one moves and one does not (I suspect that a tightly knit community discourages movement as suggested in the post). Looking at family history you find often that relatives would come to the us and settle in the same area, i.e. the pathfinders did write back and tell folks how it was and more came over)

  3. These regional concentrations are also sometimes deliberately encouraged. Broome County has a very large Eastern European community because the Endicott-Johnson shoe company recruited heavily among those immigrants. Local tradition has it that immigrants on ships bound for the US were taught to say “Which way EJ?” at Ellis Island, and shipped up to the Binghamton area.

    (More recently, Broome County has attracted a lot of immigrants from Southeast Asia, particularly Laos, a process that was starting when I was in high school (one of the area schools suddenly had a really good soccer team made up mostly of Laotian kids). There’s a big Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Whitney Point, now. I’m not sure how deliberate that was, though.)

    Schenectady had some programs in the early 2000s to bring recent immigrants from Guyana here to join a smallish community that was already doing well. One of the previous mayors even went to Guyana at one point in hopes of bringing some people straight here. That’s worked out pretty well, on the whole.

  4. Do we know of sociological studies that determine when one moves and one does not

    I don’t know about sociological studies, but certainly some people move when conditions become so severe that staying where they are is not an option, even if they otherwise would remain.

    If you go walking in the woods around here (New Hampshire), you will occasionally encounter a stone wall. These walls marked the boundaries between neighboring farms. Then in 1815 an Indonesian volcano called Tambora erupted, the most powerful eruption witnessed by people who lived to write about it. Several years of crop failures followed. Many people left for Ohio and points west, where the soil is better and the growing season is longer. As marginal farmland was abandoned, the forests grew again.

    In other cases, the driver is war (that’s why many of the Southeast Asian immigrants who arrived in the US in the 1970s and 1980s came over) or persecution (probably a contributing factor to the Indonesian community a couple of towns over–they’re mostly Christian, coming from a majority Muslim country, and those two religions have a history of not playing well together).

    It would be interesting to look at families where some stay and others move. That would include some of my relatives: one of my cousins operates the ranch that our grandfather ran, and his two surviving brothers also live in the state (having moved back after several years elsewhere), but the rest of us are elsewhere.

  5. With a Broome County, that assumes that people that own the land own the mineral rights, too, which they may not.

  6. I sometimes wonder if there is a gene or roup of genes for “moving” and “not moving” that is responsible for what Lyle noted @2. I know people who move frequently, both within a given area (house to house) as well as from job to job, whereas my extended family migrates somewhat but tends to stay where they end up. I come from generations of paid-off 30 year mortgages, but separating genetics from culture is a difficult game.

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