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Stuck in America’s Struggling Small Towns

When it comes to being poor, geography is destiny. But do we just leave blighted communities to die?
Detroit homes poverty

Are some towns better off dead?

That’s the argument National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson and Reason’s Nick Gillespie have made in the past, after considering rural blight and the devastating dearth of jobs for poorer Americans in those areas.

But a new report, recently released by the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, responds with a more holistic diagnosis. The partnership was formed a year and a half ago with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and aims to find new ways for the government and philanthropy to assist the poor.

In their report, the partnership suggests that many poor people are “stuck”—geographically, economically, and socially. And geography is the main factor behind the latter two forms of stasis, as City Lab’s Michael Anft notes in his analysis of the report: “When it comes to being poor in America, geography is still destiny. Regions of chronic intergenerational poverty, shaped by the structural inequities that are part of the nation’s history, have remained stubbornly resistant to change.”

“Place matters,” the report authors write. “The community where a child grows up greatly influences her or his opportunities for upward mobility. Comparing children in the same family who move from a low-opportunity to a high-opportunity area makes this clear. Children who move at age 12 fare significantly better than their older siblings. Children who move at age 6 or younger fare the best.”

Thus, the report aims to provide the poor with avenues out of geographically destitute areas and into “opportunity communities”—a strategy that hearkens back to Williamson’s and Gillespie’s urging that stagnant towns be allowed to die.

But thankfully, the report adds some nuance that is absent from those other diagnoses. Its authors don’t believe struggling towns and cities should be left to crumble and rot: while we should prioritize the needs of those stuck within their borders, we ought to try and revitalize these places if we can.

“For every person to live in a safe community that offers the opportunities fundamental
 to mobility, we must revitalize historically distressed communities, preserve and increase affordable housing in newly restored communities, and expand access to opportunity-rich communities and institutions for people living in low-mobility areas,” they write. “We must pursue all three approaches together.”

The authors call for an “intensive place-conscious” strategy that combines revitalization and affordable housing with access to the aforementioned “opportunity communities.” While we want to renew and reinvigorate struggling areas, it’s also important to acknowledge the toll a broken neighborhood takes on its youngest members. Thus, the report suggests prioritizing safe and stable housing for high-need, low-income families with young children.

This balance matters because we cannot only consider the needs of the mobile. We must also acknowledge the impact their out-migration has on those left behind. Much of rural America, especially, is growing “older, poorer, and less educated,” as Sarah Jones recently put it at the New Republic.

In her article, Jones talks to Pennsylvania State University professor Ann Tickamyer about the idea that geography is destiny, that poverty is an inescapable condition within certain regions of the United States. And while Tickamyer agrees with the statement to some extent, she adds this important caveat: “Any time you make descriptions about what the problems in rural places are, and what people should do, you’re generalizing way beyond what is reasonable. The Mississippi Delta is really different from central Appalachia and the Texas borderlands.”

Tickamyer also points out that what we leave behind may not be all bad, as we go out in search of greater gains:

The poorer you are the more you depend on a safety net that is more likely to be made up of your relatives and friends, family, community than of whatever the official safety net is. So if you are poor, sporadically employed or unemployed with kids, who provides the child care? Who helps out when you run out of money to purchase groceries or need an emergency car repair or whatever? It’s going to be the people who you are connected to in your community and in your family.

Some movers will find new forms of support within opportunity communities. Others will leave it behind. A D.C. drug store clerk once told a friend of mine that he had to help a mother who had come in with her obviously sick and unhappy child because she didn’t have anyone to watch the baby while she picked up her prescription. This is the reality for many in isolating and stratified cities: while these areas may offer financial boons, they make connection and rapport much more difficult to establish.

Leaving isn’t always the answer. So how do we help those who choose to stay, who choose familial and communal support over economic relief? This is where it becomes incredibly important to build “strong towns” and revitalize neighborhoods, to not just urge people to leave, but to take up the vital work of placemaking. Comparing this concept to that of “homemaking” makes the vision clear: we must foster an ordered place, steward its resources wisely, and ensure that it is safe and comfortable for all those who reside within it. It’s a vision that cannot be achieved without determined placemakers: community and civic leaders, philanthropists, businesspeople, and politicians who are ready and willing to dedicate themselves to their place.

This vision already exists, to some extent, in many of America’s struggling communities: I know an MIT graduate who left his job with Microsoft to return home to small-town Oregon—to one of the poorest counties in the United States—in order to “give back.” He’s helped develop STEM programs at the local community college, worked to develop greater, more affordable broadband connectivity in the community, and provided a multitude of jobs to local workers through his farm. I’ve also met a mayor who is determined to revitalize his small town and bring in new businesses. He’s rescuing it from stasis and decline through his dedicated volunteerism and work on urban revitalization. And there are a multitude of young college graduates I’ve met who have turned down D.C.’s appealing paychecks and glamor and instead returned to their hometowns—to family farm jobs, ministry work, non-profit initiatives, small-town law offices, and more.

I’m beginning to see that there’s a lot of promise in the returners: those who go out from their hometowns, learn vital skills (and perhaps earn what they can’t at home), and then return with a mind to give back, to grow, and to steward. It isn’t a perfect or a full answer. But for many of America’s struggling towns, it may be a start.

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National ReviewThe Federalist, and the Washington Times, among others.