“I just don’t understand why you young people complain about high rent in the city – you could just move to the Midwest and buy a big house, if you’d get over yourselves.”
You’ve heard this argument before if you live in a city. It is usually delivered by some horrible relative who is holding a strong alcoholic beverage in one hand and a cocktail shrimp in the other, delivered with that particular type of sloshed bravado particular to horrible relatives. The Magical Cornfield Solution is one of those arguments that is so intrinsically, obviously stupid that it is hard to believe people are sincere about it . But they are. These people really believe that young American’s problems with finding housing and decently-paying work would magically vanish if we all just moved to a very attractively-priced soybean field somewhere near the geographic center of the country. They are convinced that young people are paying ever-spiraling urban rents because we are too proud, too fancy for life in a place without bizarrely-colored lattes and metaphysical yoga classes.
Here are some reasons why moving to the country is not a magical panacea for high rents and housing inequality. I cannot believe I have to explain this, but then again, it is 2018, and I am always disappointed.
Rural areas are also experiencing housing shortages and affordability crises. We just never hear about them – I certainly didn’t know this until I began researching this blog post. A young person who lives in an expensive area and spends a lot on rent who moves to a rural area (as your shitty Uncle Chad advises) will almost certainly be penalized by a lower-income job: it is by no means guaranteed that they’ll be able to buy a home in return. While housing is cheaper in rural areas, incomes are also lower, which means that many people don’t have the resources to improve the housing they’re already in. Some scenic rural areas suffer from affordability problems caused by second-home buyers, who buy properties that working families might live in year-round. Completely unsurprisingly, the declining economic activity and populations in rural areas are also linked to declines in home-building, home improvement, and the availability of home loans. While Nebraska has plenty of jobs, there’s not enough housing for people who might move to fill them – yes, that’s right, there’s a housing shortage in rural Nebraska. Making matters worse, low-income new arrivals in rural and remote areas add to already over-burdened health and social services: this article looks at how this is playing out in rural Canada, a country with socialized health-care, unlike some other countries we know.
Lots of people are from cities, and they’d like to stay in those cities. There is a certain type of smug soybean-field-pusher who assumes that everyone in the entire country is originally from a picket-fence small town or a suburb. This is a problem, because a lot of people are born in cities and stay in those cities. Which are the same places where their families are. The U.S. Census Bureau inconveniently doesn’t collect data on whether people were born in the cities that they live in, but it does collect data on whether people were born in the same state as the city they currently reside in. 58.5% of Chicago’s residents (to use one example) were born in Illinois, while 70% of Philadelphia’s residents were born in Pennsylvania. 2016 data from New York University’s Furman Center found that 47.9% of New York City residents were born in the state of New York. We can safely extrapolate from this that there’s a lot of people out there who’ve never known anything but city life.
A lot of people are not white, cis-gendered, born in the United States, or heterosexual. Many of these people would like to live in places where they will not be isolated from others like them. Hate crimes are becoming more common in the Trump era, and groups that don’t fit the white, straight norm likely are finding it more important than ever to be amongst their own communities. 2010 U.S. Census Data found that a whopping 78% percent of the population in rural and small-town American communities was white and non-Hispanic. Immigrant groups in small communities may lack access to the resources they need to combat hate, as this article on rural South Asians describes. The U.S. census doesn’t collect information on LGBTQ people, but there’s evidence that LGBTQ Americans – especially youth – find rural and small-town life a challenge. A 2016 study from a University of Kansas professor on gender and sexual minority youth in nonmetropolitan communities identified four areas of particular need: “reduction in isolation, social acceptance and visibility, emotional support and safety, and GSM identity development.” White, straight Americans shouldn’t assume that rural America is as welcoming to everyone as it is to them.
Urban areas have infrastructure. That includes fast Internet and mobile service. You’re not going to be able to work that well-paying remote job your horrible relatives assume you can get in Real Rural America if you can’t get a fast Internet connection or mobile reception. The Internet crisis in rural America is acute: a whopping 39% of rural Americans lack broadband service, as opposed to just 4% of urban Americans, and the sordid death of Net Neutrality means that this shameful problem is unlikely to get better anytime soon. Rural areas have the highest healthcare premiums in the United States, which is linked to higher healthcare costs due to a lack of doctors and hospitals. The rural doctor shortage, a long-time problem, is expected to worsen thanks to the Trump administration’s idiotic and racist visa policies. Groceries may actually be cheaper in big cities, as opposed to smaller ones. You’ve got to own a car, and you’ve got to regularly gas it up. And what exactly should people who can’t drive do if they find it harder and harder to afford living in an urban area? Rural areas in the United States are, after all, not exactly known for their public transit – though some groups are wisely working to change this.
Many well-paying and fulfilling careers require you to live in cities, at least for a while. (I don’t mean “fabulous wealth and power” here, either, I mean ‘you’re not absolutely miserable and you can afford health insurance’). Good jobs are increasingly clustered into a few metro areas, especially in the comically lucrative tech world, and most of those metro areas are relatively expensive. Some of these good careers, careers which help all of humanity sometimes, are limited to one or two cities in the entire world: if you don’t want to live in those cities, you are welcome to fuck off and do something else. You are going to have a very hard time advancing to better-paid and more responsible positions if you do not live in these expensive cities. Many of the young people currently living in expensive cities appear to be interested in leaving once they’ve got the money to buy a house somewhere cheaper (though it’s debatable if cities have really hit “peak millennial” or not).
Most people probably don’t move because they want more unicorn lattes (or other amenities). 2017 data from the US Census Bureau found that the largest group of millenials (18.0% percent) moved because they wanted to establish their own household, followed by 16.1% who wanted new or better housing, and 11.9% who moved for a new job or a job transfer. People are moving much less than they used to in general. In 2017, America’s household mobility rate was 10.9%, which is the lowest since the Census Bureau started keeping track 50 years ago. This is not actually a good thing, Uncle Chad the Idiot Trump Voter, it’s yet another disturbing sign that America is stratifying into a lousy place where rich, educated people live in cities and continue to get richer, while poor people get stuck in more rural areas with fewer opportunities. Much-maligned flighty millennials are actually moving less than prior generations of young adults, per Pew Research, for a number of reasons that no one seems to be able to agree upon. Pew’s Richard Fry theorizes that this is because millennials are still suffering from the economic impact of the Great Recession, and still aren’t finding job opportunities worth making a move for. Relocation subsidies have also become a thing of the past, making it financially harder to move for a job.
Opportunity clusters. It just does, even in our Internet era. We live in a stupid and comically non-meritocratic world in which networking and running into people at parties is paramount to success (or just economic stability and comfort), and that is a whole lot easier when all the people who can help you advance are in the same geographic area as you, and are thus easier to access. One recent study found that people who attend college in big cities go on to make more money in life: the operating theory is that this is because big-city universities offer superior networking opportunities.
Most jobs (and networking) still can’t be done “from anywhere,” at least not long-term. Many companies still regard telework with extreme suspicion, and teleworkers are still penalized when it comes to advancement upward. Location also matters to freelancers, and I know, because I’ve been one, like every other sentient being under the age of 30 in 2018. Even freelance writers – a famously antisocial and isolated species – have got to meet and interact with people who will publish and promote them, at least some of the time. This doesn’t have to mean living in that particular bit of Brooklyn that is (far as I have read) absolutely jam-packed with tiresome men who write big fancy novels about insecure professors with sexual problems, and thank God for that, but it often does mean living in some sort of urban area with a media scene. There are a lot less of those outside of the urban United States.
Insofar as I am aware, there are few friendly hiring managers who are already two margaritas in and know this guy who happens to be looking for someone with your exact skill-set wandering the vast and empty plains of middle-America. There are no migratory herds of avuncular mentors who will help you get that meeting with his friend Roberta the Nicest CEO, though I mean, that sort of ecological destruction is just what you get when you decimate our formerly mighty long-grass prairies.
City living is the way of the future. I don’t mean that in that depressing dystopian cyberpunk way, that particular vision that is weirdly shared by every single “serious” science fiction show: you know, everything’s grimy, everyone has mohawks, people are eating cyber-rats out of desperation. That’s not real, but the advantages of urban dwelling are. Larger, denser cities are widely considered to be more energy efficient: emissions appear to reduce as metros grow larger. Productive cities that can attract more people get more productive in turn, contributing more to GDP. There’s a well-proven, direct relationship between city density and human capital. The benefits aren’t just economic. There’s a reason so many famous art and social movements originated in cities: cities allow creative and diverse people to find one another and come up with new concepts and ways of living, in ways that still can’t be replaced by the quotidian delights of social media. Cities drive economic growth, though, as this research shows, they don’t have to be ginormous mega cities. Even small cities produce economic benefit in “developing” nations. It is not realistic or desirable for every American to reside on 10 acres of isolated farmland, even if it’s really, really cheap to live there. (Build your own shack! Defend yourself against the roving night-coyotes!).
Advising young people to stop their whining and move out of the city, where they can be isolated from one another and from centers of culture and political power, is remarkably short-sighted. It is ahistorical, to an extent that makes me extremely suspicious. Venerating the noble countryside can really be taken too far: I wonder how many of the horrible uncles promoting a millennial exodus to Missouri are aware of how that particular experiment went for Mao Tse-Tung, or for the Khmer Rouge. Nothing good comes from these naive, dangerous demands to empty the cities, to stop putting on airs. Moving to cities is one of humanity’s most persistent historical trends: that of clustering and aggregation and great cities rising and doing great and awful things. Uncle Chad is not going to somehow stop this millennia drive toward urbanization by braying about how inexpensive possum-filled mansions are in his town in East Dakota. Do not put up with Uncle Chad.