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This story in the New York Times on a “brain gain” underway in rural America is old news for many of us. We’ve long spotted the small but growing trend away from urban centers towards rural communities. It first became evident more than ten years ago, as outmigration become evident in California for the first time in the state’s history it added no new congressional districts after the 2010 Census. Outmigration from high tax northeastern states and cities has been underway even longer and continues unabated.
There are some obvious reasons for that, mostly positive, but not without some emerging conflicts that are already apparent in places like Texas.
First, many “aging” millennials and Gen-X’er’s are tiring of the costs associated with urban life: high housing costs, commute times and aggravations, increasing petty and serious crime rates (there’s the equivalent of a mass shooting every weekend in Chicago, and Philly isn’t far behind). I suspect it began at least in part with changing food habits, a desire for “locally grown” produce from communities like they used to live in, or closer to.
Second, the way people work and shop are dramatically changing. With improving broadband access in rural areas, other technology improvements, and course the easy of shopping from your own computer, it’s easier to work from anywhere. The ancient concerns over managing employees working “remotely” is just that: ancient. Skype and other technologies, along with a decreasing desire or tolerance to relocate for work or even travel, both from convenience and cost concerns have accelerated that trend. It’s been nearly 20 years now since the General Services Administration, working with other US federal agencies, began to establish remote working centers in places like Fredericksburg & Winchester, Virginia and elsewhere to help federal workers avoid lengthy commutes to Washington, DC.
Third, rural communities increasingly have a lot to offer. My parent’s and sister’s home town of Canton, Illinois, is a good example (I write this from Canton). It has a first-rate regional hospital system, an emerging “restaurant row,” and even a 24/7 fitness center on the town square. It’s got plenty of first-rate grocery stores and strong public education and parks. And it’s not that far to Peoria, which itself hardly qualifies as an “urban” city, at least in many minds. Our internet access here in Canton is as good or better than I get from Comcast in the Philly suburbs (better, actually, now that I think of it).
Which brings up a fourth point: neighborliness. How many of you who live in urban or close-in suburban multi-housing enclaves actually know your neighbors (or, even like them?). Books like “Bowling Alone” have chronicled, in part, the trend of loneliness, even in the densest communities (of course, social media has a lot to do with that, but that’s off-topic).
Salena Zito (co-author of “The Great Revolt” and New York Post columnist extraordinaire) has chronicled this trend as well, recently highlighting a gay married couple who left Washington, DC for the town of Accident, Maryland in a wonderful transition that has benefited both the couple and the community.
But therein lies the rub: Many of these transplants are bringing their voting habits and certain values with them which, and in some cases, are creating tension. Not on diversity or genuine tolerance – rural communities, like the ones I grew up in back in Oklahoma have been diverse and respectful of other people for a long time. I attended schools seated next to friends of varied ethnicities and political and economic backgrounds and thought nothing of it. But in bringing views and values that created many of the problems they’re escaping: high taxes, slower job growth, regulatory burdens, public transportation breakdowns, safety issues, isolation, tribalism, lack of assimilation and even intolerance in the name of tolerance, etc., they’re voting to bring those very same problems to these small communities.
Hopefully, as they assimilate into the lifestyles and neighbors of their new environs, they’ll think carefully about the public policies – and the politicians – they advocate. Hopefully, they be mindful of keeping the back door closed to what they left behind. One of the attractive features of smaller communities is that they live by our national motto – E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. These communities’ cultures work, in many cases, because they invest, care for, and take care of the neighbors and communities as a whole, not as members of a tribe. You’re less likely to call your neighbor names or insult someone who you see every day at the local Kroger’s, or doctor’s office.
So, I embrace this trend. Let’s hope those making the move are mindful and respectful of what drew them to these small, rural communities in the first place.