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Stuck in America’s Struggling Small Towns

Are some towns better off dead [1]?

That’s the argument National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson and Reason’s Nick Gillespie have made [2] in the past, after considering rural blight and the devastating dearth of jobs for poorer Americans in those areas.

But a new report, [3] recently released by the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, [4] 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 [5] 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 [6]. “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.

change_me

“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 [7] 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 [8]” 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.

41 Comments (Open | Close)

41 Comments To "Stuck in America’s Struggling Small Towns"

#1 Comment By Youknowho On February 4, 2018 @ 10:20 pm

There are plenty of ghost towns in the West. One day they found that they could not have a sustaining economy, so they got up and left.

Too many of those struggling town tended to be based on one industry and one big factory. A very unstable situation. Failure to diversify in time meant doing what people in the West did, get up and leave. If they can diversify their economy attract new business, all power to them, but if they cannot, they should plan on moving.

#2 Comment By Andy On February 5, 2018 @ 7:20 am

All good, the giving back thing. But what you left out is the devastation caused by opioid addiction that is specifically destroying (targeting?) rural communities. Until this is addressed and fixed, these communities – and the people in the- will continue to die.

#3 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 5, 2018 @ 8:34 am

“I’ve also met a mayor who is determined to revitalize his small town and bring in new businesses.”

This can’t work. There are thousands of small towns that are losing population. If they are all competing to attract new businesses, be prepared for massive abuses by Business. None of them will pay taxes.

The guy moving back after MIT and Microsoft sounds nice but certainly isn’t scalable. The more education people get, the less likely they are to move to a rural area. This is one of the reasons why there is a doctor shortage in rural America even though doctors make more is absolute dollars, not to mention after cost of living in rural areas. They have to work non-stop in rural places, send their kids to mediocre schools, have nothing to do socially and be isolated from others with their education level. You can’t get many immigrant doctors out there either because they risk getting treated like crap.

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#4 Comment By Dan On February 5, 2018 @ 8:51 am

In my lifetime I have seen manufacturing disappear from New England, which was once the cradle of American industry.
Jobs went south, lured by promises of cheap non-union labor and tax incentives.
I guess those jobs kept going, didn’t they? – south of the border or to Asia.

New England survived – one might even say “thrived” – due to its strengths in higher education and research.
I regret the loss of well-paid factory jobs, but they’re not coming back – not anywhere, not ever.

I am sympathetic to any American who cannot relocate in search of a better job because of family ties, childcare concerns, mortgages and so forth.
It’s difficult to uproot oneself, isn’t it?
Imagine the bravery and resourcefulness of people who sail across oceans in search of opportunity, to a country where a different language is spoken.
These are the people who built America, and the people who will be the future of America, if we let them in.

#5 Comment By grumpy realist On February 5, 2018 @ 9:30 am

What this boils down to is that in order to have this work, your city needs to be a certain size, or near enough to a city of a certain size. Towns below that will just evaporate.

Because we’ve had “upwardly mobile” drummed into our heads so much (thank you Horatio Alger), you’re also going to have to have at least SOME reason for people with higher ambitions to either move to your location or be willing to stay there. That’s the major impetus behind a lot of immigration–those with gumption got up and left a failing situation. So if you want people to come to a location, you’ve got to have a reason for them to move there aside from “I couldn’t hack it here anywhere else.”

Also (and this is something I learned from Japan)–there has to be a reason why the location is special. Every town in Japan seems to have something that it’s proud of–the fish, a view, a particular pickled vegetable–even a plum tree that blooms out of season (with a carefully maintained white picket fence around it and a sign explaining why it is so special.) But here in the US where so many locations have turned into carbon copies of each other courtesy of Micky D’s and its imitators, there’s no reason to pick out Town A rather than Town B ten miles further down the road. And a lot of them look like nothing more than strip malls, anyway.

#6 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 5, 2018 @ 9:53 am

Grumpy Realist,

What is wrong with upward mobility? Why would people who have the ambition and ability to do better than there current situation allows, stay in said situation?

You’re Looking at Japan, but Japan is FAR more urban than America is. There are no land grant universities in the middle of nowhere in Japan. The rural towns in Japan have basically collapsed and many have no births and are simply filled with old people waiting to die.

Rural towns are shrinking across the world both developed and undeveloped. The modern economy is biased towards conglomerations of people. You say that every town needs to have something that makes them special but the problem with your statement is that those examples that you give in Japan are really only things that a local would find compelling other than a good view, that can be sold to outsiders. These things have a lot of sentimental value to people who grew up with them and no real value to outsiders.

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#7 Comment By SDS On February 5, 2018 @ 11:04 am

Scientist 880 is correct; in that there are not enough people who will value a small town for what it is….or make the commitment to better it….
Unfortunately most people are only interested in what they can get from a place… and if their current “place” doesn’t give them more of everything they want; they’ll just leave for another “place”…. IF they can…. and just quickly wave goodbye to those who can’t… who were allegedly their family and friends…
Well; if that’s the most important thing….

#8 Comment By JonF On February 5, 2018 @ 12:05 pm

Re: But what you left out is the devastation caused by opioid addiction that is specifically destroying (targeting?) rural communities.

Opioid addiction is a terrible problem, but hardly unique to rural areas, just as crystal meth wasn’t either a decade ago. Plenty of people in suburbs and cities are also suffering under this scourge.

#9 Comment By Professor Nerd On February 5, 2018 @ 12:09 pm

Thank you, we need more of these discussions. The notion that we can just let them slowly die is disastrous thinking. What does a city of 70,000 look like as it creeps toward 20,000? That’s a nightmare scenario for the people living there.

I’d be interested in what people think of mandating a $15 minimum wage. In my dying county, fast food is ubiquitous, and they advertise $8.50 an hour like they are proud of it.

They bring unhealthful food, and meanwhile, we pay for their employees’ health care, food stamps, etc. And these are adults working, not kids.

The corporations and franchisees would scream, but if you can’t pay $15 an hour and are on welfare essentially, should you be in operation?

#10 Comment By mrscracker On February 5, 2018 @ 12:58 pm

JonF says:

“Opioid addiction is a terrible problem, but hardly unique to rural areas, just as crystal meth wasn’t either a decade ago. Plenty of people in suburbs and cities are also suffering under this scourge.”
**************
Absolutely.

#11 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 5, 2018 @ 1:53 pm

SDS,

Everyone except for Native Americans and Blacks are decended from people who left stagnant locals for greener pastures. It seems weird to now expect those who have options to sacrifice their kid’s futures for those left behind. Rod has posted article after article on this site about not wanting the poor to move in next door. That is fair enough but don’t expect those of means to live in rundown rural towns with no future either.

The issue is that birth rates have dropped precipitously in rural areas. Out-migration has always been the rule for rural areas in America but having a family of 5 kids meant that you could expect 2 to stay around and maybe 3 if you were lucky. When people have only 2 kids however, ANY out-migration leads to a steady decline in the population of the town.

#12 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 5, 2018 @ 2:00 pm

Professor Nerd,

I think the $15 dollar minimum wage is a bad idea for rural areas. It makes sense where I live in Boston because $15 doesn’t even get you to median wages in the city.the median houshold income where I live is $82k and the median family income is $102k so a minimum of $15 is totally reasonable since that puts you in the bottom 40% of income still. In many rural areas, median incomes are around $30-40k which means you’re going to put people out of work with that kind of a minimum wage. I don’t believe we should have a national minimum wage increase because now we are seeing big variations in the inflation rate depending on which part of the country you are in. It makes more sense to have minimum wages pegged to the prevailing median wage. Say instead that you must be paid 50% of the median wage or something to that effect.

#13 Comment By Dan Green On February 5, 2018 @ 2:29 pm

I have as they say been around awhile born during WW 2 of the so called silent Generation. We had untold opportunities the Greatest generation passed on. My small town northwest of Chicago had numerous manufacturing corporations in the town or area. They all went out of business as time passed. Then the era of corporations building small cube factories in rural communities to take advantage of no taxes and inexpensive labor. Then came globalization and my fortune 500 corporation closed most of it’s90 factories and contracted for brand labeled brands from Chinese job shops. Reality for any idea’s going forward.

#14 Comment By Dan Green On February 5, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

We simply have a vast land mass and trying to support a Social Democratic Welfare State based on debt, as someone has to support these defunct communities because of lack of an ability to earn an income is folly

#15 Comment By mrscracker On February 5, 2018 @ 3:28 pm

Professor Nerd says:

I’d be interested in what people think of mandating a $15 minimum wage. In my dying county, fast food is ubiquitous, and they advertise $8.50 an hour like they are proud of it”
***********
As someone else commented, that’s going to vary by area depending on the cost of living. Where I live, $15. an hr. is considered a very decent wage. I think $7.25 is the minimum here.
I don’t know why fast food gets such a bad rap. Last week I met a friend at a bakery/sandwich place. One health food type muffin & plain ole coffee ran me over five bucks. I could have had five selections off the dollar menu @ McDonald’s or a really substantial burger @ Hardees for the same money. And they would have tasted better.
Sometimes eating “locally sourced, etc.” is a better option but generally it seems more about hype & marketing .

#16 Comment By Professor Nerd On February 5, 2018 @ 4:21 pm

@Scientist 880.
Thank you. I was just throwing $15 out there, but i take your point.

My dying city is not really “rural.” Like so many industrial towns, it has a rather large SMSA population (300,000). But there are so many areas like this in the Rust Belt.

#17 Comment By Lert456 On February 5, 2018 @ 5:22 pm

I don’t see how a $15 minimum wage can be enforced in a sanctuary city, where illegal labor is willing to work for less. Maybe in other parts of the country.

#18 Comment By grumpy realist On February 5, 2018 @ 6:16 pm

I don’t have anything against “upwards mobility”. I just think that it’s going to be hard to convince people who are interested in it to move to small towns out in the middle of nowhere. Particularly if said small towns have nothing to distinguish them from the next small town down the road.

Japan’s having a collapse of its rural population, but that’s not just because people move to the cities–it’s because there’s been a population collapse overall. Women aren’t having children because it’s hard for couples to raise children in the cities and the “nuclear-family-as-economic-unit” doesn’t work that well in modern Japan.

#19 Comment By Mark On February 5, 2018 @ 9:08 pm

Small towns began their slow decline after the War Between the States when the Industrial economy overtook the agrarian world (see in the picture of the south-the “R” from the red comes from “Reconstruction,” as the South never recovered from Yankee pillaging-the research is there if you only bother to look). Success was measured by financial means and greenbacks instead of wealth being seen as coming from the land you were steward of and the livestock and natural resources you cared for or grew. I live in a small town and won’t go back to the rat race, congestion and the lack of civility in a metro area to save my life. Research reveals greater mental health in rural areas. Now we have synthetic “food” grown by industrialists that make us sick instead of organic that nourishes. Sure, there’s no movie theatre, mall or places to shop. But that’s synthetic too. The countryside offers quiet, clean air, personal space and nature that nourishes the soul. And the soul is something America had for the most part lost while being unconscious of it. I have found that real people live in small towns and that they don’t conceal their rough edges like people in metro areas. People know who they are. Metro life people are too busy to know who they are. It’s easier not to become fabricated in rural areas. Reminds me of the words sung by Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon: “They civilize left. They civilize right. Where nothing is left and nothing is right.” Rural know nature’s rhythm. Metro only know the chaos of manufactured noise.

#20 Comment By Andrew On February 6, 2018 @ 2:19 am

Access to transportation is one key element that I think oftentimes gets overlooked in these debates. It used to be that the small towns (say 10,000 people) orbited medium-sized towns (say 50-200k people). These medium-sized towns would have big stores, colleges, factories, railway stations, etc. In the last few decades we’ve seen a lot of consolidation in industries across the board. When firms consolidate, they streamline operations, and they always locate in an area with good access to transportation. New firms, also, tend to locate where cheap, reliable airfare is an option. This leaves the middle-tier cities with practically nothing, and that trickles down to the small towns that used to orbit them.

When travelling in Europe, I’ve noticed that many of the medium-sized cities are thriving. Some of this is due to tourism. But the fact that these cities have a train station puts them on the map, and gives them quick, reliable access to bigger markets and airports.

Our failure to build out a national high speed rail system has meant that rural areas are completely left behind. And libertarian logic demands that they be sacrificed on the altar of increased efficiency. It doesn’t have to be this way, though.

#21 Comment By La Lubu On February 6, 2018 @ 9:48 am

I think the $15 dollar minimum wage is a bad idea for rural areas.

But $15 really is what it costs to live independently, even in rural areas. And…that’s just for basic bill-paying, not for expensive luxuries like healthcare, saving for old age, or even saving for inevitable future emergencies (like a temporary illness or injury that results in time off from work, or a major car repair, or furnace replacement, or burying someone in the family, or..or…or…).

Think of rural areas as…same devastation as the urban areas of the rust belt, just more spread out. And higher electric rates. And higher-cost heating in the winter (propane isn’t cheap). And more expensive groceries.

#22 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 6, 2018 @ 10:21 am

Hi La Lubu,

I just looked at the median income in Maine. Washington county, Maine has a median household income of $34k and a median family income of $43k. A $15 minimum wage puts the yearly wages of a minimum wage, full time worker at $30k. I don’t see this as being viable for a place like that. I would predict that they will see job losses. I am fine with running the experiment though. At the end of the day, I have nothing at risk here so if these people want to go for a $15 minimum wage in these poor states in poor towns, have at it. It would be an interesting economics experiment. It just seems unlikely that you can boost the bottom wage up to above the median wage for a family.

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#23 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 6, 2018 @ 10:31 am

Grumpy Realist,

“I don’t have anything against “upwards mobility”. I just think that it’s going to be hard to convince people who are interested in it to move to small towns out in the middle of nowhere. Particularly if said small towns have nothing to distinguish them from the next small town down the road.”

I agree with you. The overwhelming majority of the population live in urban and suburban areas. The only people interested in small towns in any number are the people who are from small towns. Kids who grow up in the city don’t dream of moving to a rural area. They may want to move to the suburbs but you’re certainly not going to convince them to go to the middle of nowhere in any significant numbers. The history of America over the past 100 years is urbanization and that’s not going to change.

“Japan’s having a collapse of its rural population, but that’s not just because people move to the cities–it’s because there’s been a population collapse overall. Women aren’t having children because it’s hard for couples to raise children in the cities and the “nuclear-family-as-economic-unit” doesn’t work that well in modern Japan.”

The same is true in America. We are currently at a birth rate of 1.84 per woman which is significantly below replacement. Most rural areas are heavily white so when you look at the birth rates of whites in America, it’s even lower than this. America will look a lot like Japan without immigration.

#24 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 6, 2018 @ 10:33 am

Mark,

You’re trying too hard. People are voting with their feet and most people don’t want to live in rural places.

#25 Comment By mrscracker On February 6, 2018 @ 10:58 am

La Lubu says:

“Think of rural areas as…same devastation as the urban areas of the rust belt, just more spread out. And higher electric rates. And higher-cost heating in the winter (propane isn’t cheap). And more expensive groceries.”
****************
Our rural area, like many others, has an electric co-op with extremely reasonable rates. Most folks here heat & cool with electricity because it’s so cheap. And the prices at Walmart, Piggly Wiggly & Winn Dixie are quite reasonable. Not to mention the Dollar Store.

#26 Comment By pnwguy On February 6, 2018 @ 11:30 am

One thing we can do is see ALL Americans as part of the nation, regardless of their isolation. In some cases, that means we will need to subsidize part of their existence, in the same way that medical insurance covers people who are born with congenital diseases that cost more to treat than they pay in premiums. It’s part of the human need for community.

In the New Deal era, Roosevelt understood that the lack of electricity greatly crippled the lives of our more isolated rural communities. And thus the Rural Electrification Act was born. Getting power to small farm towns was seen as a social good and a way to fight poverty. By the same token, getting high speed communications, both in terms of mobile phone coverage and fiber optic Internet access, should be seen in a similar fashion.

Getting a collection of well trained physicians to work in a small community will be easier if they can stay connected to larger centers of medical research. And that goes for culture too. Most media is going to end up delivered over the Net, but dependent on speed. And niche businesses can survive in small communities if they can reach a global marketplace, but have the cost advantages of cheaper land and labor.

#27 Comment By LouB On February 6, 2018 @ 12:35 pm

My Da was a college administration professional who did ply his trade at institutions from urban to very rural. When I was 12 my folks moved to a smaller city ( 17,000 or so ) in western Illinois. My time in rural America lasted less than three years but I have been forever drawn to return. My professional life has kept me in the megacity rat nest and I have been able to only visit and look, wishing I could earn even half as much if I went back. I’m sure that I am not alone in this. The small city I once lived in lived and breathed bustling industry, boasting the world’s largest electric remelt steelmaking furnace in the early 1970’s. Now that is all gone. “The Mill” closed in 2001. Most of the other hardware manufacturing concerns are now also shuttered. The town that held so much promise to it’s children when I was there in the early 1970’s just seems to have had the stuffing knocked out of it.

And yet I’d still love to return.

#28 Comment By Weldon On February 6, 2018 @ 12:50 pm

This generation is (apparently) less mobile than its predecessors. We may not need to entirely abandon all of the dying towns, but more of us should do so than currently are.

#29 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 6, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

pnwguy,

“Getting a collection of well trained physicians to work in a small community will be easier if they can stay connected to larger centers of medical research. And that goes for culture too. Most media is going to end up delivered over the Net, but dependent on speed. And niche businesses can survive in small communities if they can reach a global marketplace, but have the cost advantages of cheaper land and labor.”

Broadband is an issue with attracting professionals but it isn’t the primary issue at all when it comes to attracting doctors to rural areas. If you are a doctor in a rural town, you have to be on call all the time which is miserable. This is because you are likely the only physician in the area.

You also have the 2 body problem. Most professionals marry others with similar levels of education who are also professionals these days. At minimum, they marry those with an undergrad degree. If your spouse is not a doctor, the odds that there will be a job for them to work that is commensurate with their level of education in a small rural town are… low. Most professionals aren’t interested in single earner families because of the risk that entails and because they would be leaving tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table and that spouse would lose their prestige.

Then there is the issue of sorting in our society. Most doctors are democrats. Democrats don’t choose to live in red America by and large. People with professional degrees want to live around others with similar levels of education so they can have people to talk to about things they care about.

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You would also have to send your kids to sub-par rural schools if you move to rural area. Rural areas have low college enrollment rates. Doctors are some of the most educationally inclined people in our society. Most aren’t interested in sacrificing their kids to the low expectations associated with rural life just like they aren’t interested in doing the same for inner city life.

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Most medical students come from well off backgrounds as well so they aren’t even from rural places by and large which is obvious from the low college enrollment levels in rural areas. Rural places aren’t enticing to most people who aren’t from rural America. This is why the demographics of rural areas have been so stable over the past 60 years even as the demographics of the country shift.

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#30 Comment By La Lubu On February 6, 2018 @ 2:00 pm

It would be an interesting economics experiment. It just seems unlikely that you can boost the bottom wage up to above the median wage for a family.

But by your own numbers, it isn’t—you gave figures that put it over $10 grand below the median family income. Meanwhile, most of the people earning less than $15 an hour are trying to support a family, and having a really rough time doing it. They don’t have disposable income, and nowhere is that more visible than the dying towns (large or small) we’re talking about here. When there is not a critical mass of people with disposable income, cities die. You need a population base (also tax base) that can spend.

I’ve heard the argument “but…a higher minimum wage will just cause employers to automate”. Shrug. To paraphrase Walter Reuther, how many hamburgers will the robots buy? I agree that an increase in the minimum wage isn’t going to increase the population base in small towns. But neither is it going to cause people to leave. It can help to stabilize the population and economy of those towns—because right now, escape is the only reasonable solution, and that just kicks the can further down the road, as the escape destinations become filled with more people that can’t afford rent and/or can’t find jobs.

Bottom line: we have a musical chairs economy. Significantly more people than seats. This isn’t sustainable.

#31 Comment By La Lubu On February 6, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

LouB, I feel for you. My folks came from another city just like that one, in the Illinois Valley. It was once the “glass container capital of the world.” It’s now known for being one the heroin overdose capitals of Illinois. I graduated from high school in what was once a more bustling industrial city than either of those places; it could now serve as a functional set piece for a revision of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. It *always* makes the upper portion of the top ten “worst places to live in Illinois”, and is now listed as the “tenth worst place to raise a child in the U.S.”

But hey…stockholders are doing fine.

#32 Comment By mrscracker On February 6, 2018 @ 2:28 pm

pnwguy says:

“In the New Deal era, Roosevelt understood that the lack of electricity greatly crippled the lives of our more isolated rural communities. And thus the Rural Electrification Act was born.”
******************
I think maybe that’s when our electric cooperatives began? Anyway, some communities had electricity way before they had phones. We used to live in an area that had no phone service until the 1970’s.
Our electric co-op is great. They have a monthly magazine with articles about local people & events, recipes, & a chance to win $10. off your next light bill.
The annual meeting features live music, dancing, door prizes & a drawing to pick out a brand new vehicle or tractor. People look forward to attending every year.
Just a word about rural healthcare-they’re trying to expand our little hospital & have physicians who want to practice here. Seems like a good sign. I know of other small hospitals that have closed or consolidated.

#33 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 6, 2018 @ 2:29 pm

La Lubu,

“But by your own numbers, it isn’t—you gave figures that put it over $10 grand below the median family income. Meanwhile, most of the people earning less than $15 an hour are trying to support a family, and having a really rough time doing it.’

I apologize, I was not being clear. I am defining a family as a family of 4 with 2 working adults since most adults in America work. The stay at home thing is niche now.

#34 Comment By La Lubu On February 6, 2018 @ 2:30 pm

Getting power to small farm towns was seen as a social good and a way to fight poverty. By the same token, getting high speed communications, both in terms of mobile phone coverage and fiber optic Internet access, should be seen in a similar fashion.

But…that won’t bring in new people, or necessarily any additional new investment or educational infrastructure. It would improve the lives of our citizens, and could possibly help stem *some* of the bleeding off of existing businesses. But for all the reasons The Scientist 880 listed in his response, it would not be enough.

Sorry to sound like such a downer, really. But…our nation hasn’t even bothered to invest in the much larger cities of the rust belt that have been abandoned in the “new economy”. Places where there *used to be* train stations, places where there *are* colleges and/or hospitals. Places where there still is some straggling base of skilled labor. We’ve been cut off, so it stands to reason that places much worse off aren’t going to be invested in either.

#35 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 6, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

La Lubu,

“I’ve heard the argument “but…a higher minimum wage will just cause employers to automate”. Shrug. To paraphrase Walter Reuther, how many hamburgers will the robots buy? I agree that an increase in the minimum wage isn’t going to increase the population base in small towns. But neither is it going to cause people to leave. It can help to stabilize the population and economy of those towns—because right now, escape is the only reasonable solution, and that just kicks the can further down the road, as the escape destinations become filled with more people that can’t afford rent and/or can’t find jobs.

Bottom line: we have a musical chairs economy. Significantly more people than seats. This isn’t sustainable.”

I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. If you’re willing to risk the automation, I am not against attempting a $15 minimum wage out there, I have no skin in that game whatsoever. I just don’t see this as being possible because these small towns and cities don’t generate much in the way of economic activity. Maybe I am wrong and it could work.

#36 Comment By Jalapeño Bob On February 6, 2018 @ 2:39 pm

In a world where natural disasters abound and terrorism is a growing threat, concentrating industry or population in small areas is a recipe for disaster. One earthquake, one hurricane or one terrorist’s bomb can cause tremendous death and destruction. If these concentrations are spread out over a large number of small rural towns, one event would be painful, but would not be a national disaster.

#37 Comment By La Lubu On February 6, 2018 @ 2:53 pm

The Scientist 880: The automation is going to happen anyway. That just make the challenge of “what is going to happen to all these unemployable people” all the greater. Or not: if they have no income, the new “automats” for food service won’t survive (not enough critical mass).

You’re right: those small places don’t generate much in the way of economic activity. What an increase in the minimum wage could do for them is stabilize the standard of living of the current generation—take them from the poverty-wage precariat to the bottom rung of the working class. That could make them better equipped to provide the next generation with the ability to effectively escape. Improve the tax base enough to improve the local educational system to be able to give the escaping generation a fighting chance at making it somewhere else.

Otherwise? Well, we can keep doing nothing. And there are ample examples worldwide for the future of that.

I thought “Viking Economics” by George Lakey had a lot of interesting things to say about how those nations met similar challenges.

#38 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 6, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

La Lubu,

“Sorry to sound like such a downer, really. But…our nation hasn’t even bothered to invest in the much larger cities of the rust belt that have been abandoned in the “new economy”. Places where there *used to be* train stations, places where there *are* colleges and/or hospitals. Places where there still is some straggling base of skilled labor. We’ve been cut off, so it stands to reason that places much worse off aren’t going to be invested in either.”

The issues that are being seen in rust belt cities aren’t unique. People seem to have forgotten that the cities that are thriving today went through the exact same issues that the rust belt has today decades before it happened in their neck of the woods. Deindustrialization hit Boston, Ny, SF, DC, LA etc. decades before it hit the Midwest. The success you see in these cities being enjoyed by the long term residents who have benefited from high housing prices has been earned. My first memory as a child is seeing a dead body. The cities I mentioned deindustrilaized in the 50’s,60’s and 70’s. NYC was full of crack in the 80’s and heroin in the 70’s and was STRUGGLING. Boston had decades of out migration due to loss of jobs, violence and drugs. Middle America sure as hell didn’t give us a helping hand when we were down. The success you see is all within the past 10-30 years depending on the city.

#39 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 6, 2018 @ 7:25 pm

Another reason why these places aren’t going to recover is because now everyone knows that buying property in these places is foolish. These places don’t have diverse employment sectors. If you buy a home in these places, you could get stuck if the one big employer in the area closes. You always hear people complain about the High home values in coastal cities and it is a problem, but one of the reasons for these high prices is that coastal cities have much more diverse economies and aren’t smashed in downturns the same way these low cost of living places are. Florida, Arizona, many places in Texas and the Midwest were bloodbaths in 2008. There weren’t blocks of abandoned buildings in the big coastal cities back then. Things weren’t great for sure but it wasn’t like Florida. It’s also always easier to go from a high cost of living area to a low cost of living place. The reverse is much harder.

#40 Comment By Patricus On February 7, 2018 @ 2:54 am

I wonder about several statements that highly educated people prefer to socialize with other highly educated people. I play poker once a month with highly educated people for the most part. We have no highly educated discussions. We play poker. Other than that my occasional social associations have little to do with high level intellectual discussions. Most talk is about family or sports. For me acquiring knowledge is a solitary pursuit utilizing books, the internet and television. Every once in a while I meet someone who shares an specific interest but that is rare.

I would leave the urban-suburban rat race tomorrow except I need to make a living where there are many people and, regettably, traffic. It would be nice to pursue interests while enjoying open spaces and solitude.

#41 Comment By Thrice A Viking On February 16, 2018 @ 6:59 pm

I think some definitions are badly needed here. The Census Bureau, I believe, classifies a town as urban if it has at least 5,000. Five thousand, that’s all you need, much as it may amuse genuine big-city types. Perhaps we should not say “rural” when we mean “small town”?

Speaking of that: Lou B, were you saying that the town of 17 thousand was the “very rural” you mentioned? If so, it really isn’t. Sorry to hear of its current predicament. What’s its current population, BTW?

Mark, I appreciate your passion about the beauty of rural and small town areas. But Scientist 880 is right, that’s just not where most people want to live. Perhaps some things can be done to reverse that, but at present it doesn’t look promising. BTW, I doubt that what Northerners did to the South in the 19th century has much to do with any region’s status now.

La Lubu, remember that two people working full-time at $15/hour would be $60 thousand a year (actually, a little over it), which is well over the $43 thousand median household income in the Maine county cited. Besides, half that is about 70% of the median, and minimum wages aren’t supposed to work like that.