Famed writer J.D. Vance, author of the powerful book Hillbilly Elegy, recently wrote an interesting New York Times column about the potential problems caused by the tendency of successful people to leave struggling regions for greener pastures elsewhere:
Experts have warned for years now that our rates of geographic mobility have fallen to troubling lows. Given that some areas have unemployment rates around 2 percent and others many times that, this lack of movement may mean joblessness for those who could otherwise work.
But from the community’s perspective, mobility can be a problem. The economist Matthew Kahn has shown that in Appalachia, for instance, the highly skilled are much likelier to leave not just their hometowns but also the region as a whole. This is the classic “brain drain” problem: Those who are able to leave very often do….
As one of my college professors recently told me about higher education, “The sociological role we play is to suck talent out of small towns and redistribute it to big cities….”
[W]e often frame civic responsibility in terms of government taxes and transfer payments, so that our society’s least fortunate families are able to provide basic necessities. But this focus can miss something important: that what many communities need most is not just financial support, but talent and energy and committed citizens to build viable businesses and other civic institutions….
Of course, not every town can or should be saved. Many people should leave struggling places in search of economic opportunity, and many of them won’t be able to return…. But those of us who are lucky enough to choose where we live would do well to ask ourselves, as part of that calculation, whether the choices we make for ourselves are necessarily the best for our home communities — and for the country.
Vance writes that such considerations played a role in his own decision to move back to his home state of Ohio after attending Yale Law School and working in Silicon Valley. Having achieved success by departing the struggling community where he grew up, he has now returned to the same region, in part of out of a sense of civic duty.
Vance’s concern for disadvantaged communities is admirable. But the advice he offers civic-minded successful people may not be the best way for them to help. In most cases, they can best serve society by living wherever they can be most productive. If an engineer or a computer programmer can produce more and better innovations in Silicon Valley than in her hometown in Appalachia, she might well benefit society more by moving than by staying put. The ideas and products she develops will help not only people in Silicon Valley but those back in Appalachia, as well. Over time, even people who stay put benefit greatly from the achievements of those who move in search of opportunity.
Vance’s own life story is actually an example of this dynamic. If you read his moving book, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that his life was transformed by moving: leaving home to join the Marine Corps, get a college degree at Ohio State University, and eventually going to Yale, opened up opportunities that he probably would never have had if he had not left home. As a result, he is now a far more productive member of society than he likely would have been otherwise.
Although Vance has returned to his home state, he did not move back to the depressed community where he grew up, but to Columbus, a thriving city whose economy has done very well in recent years. He likely concluded that he and his family would be happier, more productive, and better able to serve society there than in a less successful part of the state.
Aside from having attended the same law school (at different times), Vance’s Appalachian “hillbilly” background could hardly be more different from my own, as an immigrant from Russia. But there is one important commonality: both our lives were transformed for the better by moving. The same is true of many millions of other people. Historically, “voting with your feet” has been a powerful engine of upward mobility for immigrants and native-born Americans alike.
Moreover, people who vote with their feet for regions with greater economic opportunity and better public policy incentivize jurisdictions to adopt better policies in order to be more competitive. That too can benefit society as a whole, not just those who actually move.
Vance also worries that if successful people move to areas with greater opportunity, that may exacerbate ideological segregation in society, thereby worsening political polarization. Such polarization is indeed a serious problem. But the evidence suggests that geographic mobility is not a major factor in exacerbating this problem, and in some cases might even make it less severe rather than more. The so-called “Big Sort” probably is not a major cause of our political dysfunctions.
Despite my reservations about some other aspects of his argument, Vance is absolutely right to point to the dangers of declining mobility for the poor. Scholars on both the right and left have warned that such factors as excessive zoning and occupational licensing have made it more difficult for the disadvantaged to move to areas with greater opportunity. There is much we can do to make it easier for people to achieve upward mobility by moving. Foot voting transformed both Vance’s life and my own. And it can do the same for many others who currently feel trapped.
Those who have been fortunate enough to achieve a measure of success thanks to mobility should not feel guilty about it. We can help society best by being productive citizens and – where possible – working to ensure that the foot voting opportunities that benefited us become more available to others.