Saturday, February 24, 2018
Opinion

Column: Why I'm moving home

COLUMBUS, Ohio

In recent months, I've frequently found myself in places hit hard by manufacturing job losses, speaking to people affected in various ways. Sometimes, the conversation turns to the conflict people feel between the love of their home and the desire to leave in search of better work.

It's a conflict I know well: I left my home state, Ohio, for the Marine Corps when I was 19. And while I've returned home for months or even years at a time, job opportunities often pull me away.

Experts have warned for years 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.

The brain drain also encourages a uniquely modern form of cultural detachment. Eventually, the young people who have moved out marry — typically to partners with similar economic prospects. They raise children in increasingly segregated neighborhoods, giving rise to something the conservative scholar Charles Murray calls "super ZIPs." These super ZIPs are veritable bastions of opportunity and optimism, places where divorce and joblessness are rare.

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." There have always been regional and class inequalities in our society, but the data tells us that we're living through a unique period of segregation.

This has consequences beyond the purely material. Jesse Sussell and James A. Thomson of the RAND Corp. argue that this geographic sorting has heightened the polarization that now animates politics. This polarization reflects itself not just in our voting patterns, but also in our political culture: Not long before the election, a friend forwarded me a conspiracy theory about Bill and Hillary Clinton's involvement in a pedophilia ring and asked me whether it was true.

It's easy to dismiss these questions as the ramblings of "fake news" consumers. But the more difficult truth is that people naturally trust the people they know — their friend sharing a story on Facebook — more than strangers who work for faraway institutions. And when we're surrounded by polarized, ideologically homogeneous crowds, whether online or off, it becomes easier to believe bizarre things about them. This problem runs in both directions: I've heard ugly words uttered about "flyover country" and some of its inhabitants from well-educated, generally well-meaning people.

I've long worried whether I've become a part of this problem. For two years, I'd lived in Silicon Valley, surrounded by other highly educated transplants with seemingly perfect lives. It's jarring to live in a world where every person feels his life will only get better when you came from a world where many rightfully believe that things have become worse. And I've suspected that this optimism blinds many in Silicon Valley to the real struggles in other parts of the country. So I decided to move home, to Ohio.

It wasn't an easy choice. I scaled back my commitments to a job I love because of the relocation. My wife and I worry about the quality of local public schools, and whether she (a San Diego native) could stand the unpredictable weather.

But there were practical reasons to move: I'm founding an organization to combat Ohio's opioid epidemic. We chose Columbus because I travel a lot, and I need to be centrally located in the state and close to an airport. And the truth is that not every motivation is rational: Part of me loves Ohio simply because it's home.

We 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. Some people will move back to their hometowns; others, like me, will move back to their home state.

The calculation will undoubtedly differ for each person, as it should. 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.

J.D. Vance is the author of "Hillbilly Elegy." © 2017 New York Times

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