Roughly 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But new data from Gallup suggests many of them aren’t doing so by choice. Asked what kind of community they’d live in if they could move anywhere they wished, Americans overall said their No. 1 choice would be in a rural area.
Twenty-seven percent, specifically, said a rural area would be their ideal community, with an additional 12 percent opting for a small town. Just 12 percent said they’d prefer a big city, with an additional 21 percent preferring a big city suburb, the second-most-popular choice. Seventeen percent said a small city would be ideal, while just 10 percent said they’d like to live in a small city suburb.
The differences between where people actually live and where they’d like to live are telling. Just 15 percent said they live in a rural area, while 40 percent said they live in either a big or small city. “If Americans did sort themselves according to their desires,” Gallup’s Frank Newport writes, “there would be an exodus from the big cities and, to a lesser degree, from small cities and towns, accompanying a movement to rural areas.”
So why do they stay put? Quite simply, big metro areas tend to be where the jobs and opportunities are. “Many Americans are constrained by financial, family and other factors that make moving to a different type of place difficult, if not impossible,” Newport writes. Labor markets work as a positive feedback loop: Job opportunities attract talented employees, and talented employees attract firms looking to hire.
At the extreme end of this cycle you end up with superstar firms and cities gobbling up an ever larger share of the economic pie. Just look to the recent announcement of Amazon’s new operations in Washington, D.C., and New York, two cities already awash in talent and prosperity. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon, also owns The Washington Post.)
Given that many urban dwellers apparently want to move away from the cities, Gallup’s numbers suggest that population concentration like this is more beneficial to employers than employees. Other research tends to back this up. Happiness and well-being tend to be higher in rural areas than in urban ones. Urban areas also see higher rates of mental illness and poverty. Due to chronic underinvestment in infrastructure and housing, many cities are doing a poor job of keeping pace with the flow of new arrivals, eroding the quality of life for everyone.
Having myself moved from the Washington area to a 100 percent rural county several years ago, I can speak to some of these factors firsthand. For anyone with even a mild misanthropic streak (which, judging by my Twitter feed, is pretty much everyone), the primary benefit of rural life is that there are far fewer people to deal with here. My home county has a population density of about 9.5 people per square mile — the density of Washington, by contrast, is more than 100 times that, at 9,856 people per square mile.
Many of the aggravations that we commonly associate with life in metropolitan areas — crowds, long lines, dense traffic, crime — are rare to nonexistent here simply because there are hardly any people. The air is clean. The neighborhoods are safe. The homes are affordable.
There are drawbacks, however, to living in the middle of nowhere. The Pew Research Center recently reported that for typical suburban and urban residents, the closest hospital is about a 10-minute drive away. The average rural hospital, on the other hand, is about 17 minutes away from the average rural resident. This reality was driven home for my family when my third son was born six weeks early. After a white-knuckle drive to the closest hospital, 20 minutes away, we learned that they lacked the intensive-care facilities needed to treat a baby that premature. The solution was to put my wife in an ambulance and drive her across the state line to Grand Forks, N.D., to the nearest large hospital. It’s an hour from our home.
The other headaches of rural life are more prosaic. You can forget about finding a good cup of coffee out here, to say nothing of a half-decent slice of pizza. It’s a pain to have to drive long distances for groceries and household necessities, although the ability to order things online fills up much of that gap. There are occasional issues with bears.
Regardless, Gallup’s data underscores how many city-dwellers would gladly give up the urban lifestyle, if only they could. But the relentless trend toward economic concentration in the country’s winner-take-all cities suggest that dream will remain out of reach.