Rooted, mobile, or stuck

Gracy Olmstead has a new monthly newsletter “Granola” arrived for the first time in my inbox this week. Granola focuses on place, books, and community. Here’s an excerpt:

“Though I grew up among these complex communities built on the exchange of homegrown and handmade goods, my emotionally tumultuous teenage years separated me from it and my nights were spent dreaming of better futures in a city nearby.”

Darby Weaver writes the above lines in a lovely article about agriculture and the importance of raising up a new generation of farmers—but many youths who grew up in rural America could identify with these sentiments.

We may leave home because we’ve developed different religious or cultural beliefs than our small-town communities; we may leave because we don’t see job opportunities where we grew up. Maybe our homes were broken, and we need to start over someplace else.

But whatever the case, this rural exodus is proliferating in our time. At the end of April, Congress’s Joint Economic Committee “Social Capital Project” released some important findings on the geography of brain drain in America:

“Rather than more-cosmopolitan and more-traditional residents intermingling within states, swaths of the country may become more exclusively home to one or the other camp. The places remaining when families with the most resources move to opportunity can be left entirely bereft of community.”

You might think rural places are going to decline and die out, no matter what we do. (If you do, you are definitely not alone—here are just two recent arguments for rural and post-industrial America’s inevitable collapse.) But personally, I believe the proliferation of “winner-takes-all” urbanism is not good for our ecological, economic, or cultural health—and we need to be thinking about solutions.

Richard Florida divides Americans into three groups: “the mobile,” who have the means and education to move toward opportunity, “the stuck,” who lack resources and are thus forced to remain in place, and “the rooted,” who have the resources to move, but choose to stay instead.

We can fight rural brain drain by increasing incentives for people to stay in place (or return home), thus growing the ranks of the “rooted”. But I would argue that the answer must also involve growing opportunity and social capital for the “stuck”: giving them opportunities to flourish in their home soil.

In his newly released book Dignity, Chris Arnade considers the lives of those who remain in America’s “forgotten” places. Arnade left a community like this when he was young, as part of the mobile class that sees staying put as a “form of failure.”

“I left my rural hometown and got into elite schools, which got me into elite jobs, which got me into an elite neighborhood,” he writes. But Arnade admits that his acceptance into this elite class resulted in a narrow understanding of the world: “We valued what we could measure, and that meant material wealth. Things that couldn’t be measured—community, ­dignity, faith, happiness—were largely ignored ­because they were hard to see, especially from so far away. … It didn’t occur to us that what we valued wasn’t what everyone else wanted.”

Dignity pushes us to consider what our society might owe to the “back row” Americans who’ve decided to stay put, not matter the cost.

Granola and Chris Arnade remind me of this observation from G.K. Chesterton on the difference between Richard Florida’s “mobile” versus “rooted/stuck” communities:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men.

The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies, groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique.

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