Why Are So Many Rural Virginians Stuck in Place?

Declining geographic mobility. Graph credit: McKinsey Global Institute

by James A. Bacon

A recurring question on this blog and elsewhere is why don’t more Americans (and rural Virginians) move to areas of greater economic opportunity? Why do they remain stuck in communities with high unemployment and low wages? Americans have always moved to economic opportunity in the past. What’s different now?

Those questions give rise to another set of questions. If people refuse to budge, should the rest of society take pity on them and subsidize their choice to stay put? As Don Rippert commented in a previous post, “The best thing the state can do is issue relocation vouchers to rural residents.”

The authors of a McKinsey Global Institute report, “The Future of Work in America,” tackles the geographic-mobility question. The biggest factor, they suggest, is the vast and growing gap in the cost of living between prospering cities and lagging communities. “Variations in the cost of living — and particularly in housing costs — are a clear contributing factor holding back geographic mobility in the United States. The cities offering the greatest job opportunity also happen to be expensive places to live.”
An example:

Imagine a stock clerk in Ohama who loses her job. She could look for a similar position locally, hoping to match her former salary of just under $28,000. Another option would be moving to San Francisco, where the economy is booming and the median salary for the same position is $35,240 — well above what she could make it she stays put. But the latter option may leave her in worse economic shape despite the higher salary. The average rent on a two-bedroom apartment is $1,025 in Omaha but $4,520 in San Francisco. In April 2019, a gallon of gas cost $2.55 in Omaha and $3.83 in San Francisco. Furthermore, her partner has a steady job in Omaha that would be lost in any move, and her mother is nearby to help with children.

That’s an extreme case, but it makes the point that the Cost of Living matters.

Another factor restricting state-to-state mobility is the growing web of occupational licensing requirements. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 23% of full-time workers have a license.)

Finally, McKinsey suggests, “Many people have deep ties to where they live.” They value their connections with family and friends. When they do move to another community, people tend to move to similar locations — city dwellers to other cities, suburbanites to other suburbs, and rural dwellers to small towns.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m of two minds. On the one hand, if people want to “live their values” and stay put to be close to family and friends, that’s their choice. They shouldn’t expect society to subsidize their choices through endless government programs designed to shore up rural economies and incomes. They enjoy a benefit that others who do decide to move: proximity to family and friends. You can’t put a price tag on that but it’s worth a lot.

On the other hand, the high cost of housing is a real barrier here in Virginia, especially if people want to move to the state’s most dynamic regional economy in Northern Virginia. Rural and small-town residents who manage to earn a college degree — those who have earning potential in the big metros — frequently do move. They can earn enough money to cover the higher cost of living. But low-income, low-skill residents of say, Grundy or South Boston face the prospect of a lower standard of living if they move to Manassas or Arlington.

One  way to address the problem of inter-regional mobility in Virginia is to increase the supply of affordable housing in Northern Virginia and, increasingly, in Richmond, Hampton Roads, and Charlottesville. As a bonus, that would address the plight of poor people already living in those regions.

Which problem is more intractable and expensive to solve: increasing the supply of affordable housing (and attendant transportation capacity) in our major metro areas or funding broadband and other economic palliatives for rural Virginia? It may be cheaper for taxpayers to keep rural Virginia’s lower-income in rural Virginia… although I am open to hearing other arguments.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

20 responses to “Why Are So Many Rural Virginians Stuck in Place?

  1. I do not have any answers, but I do feel like Virginia’s tax policies are extremely tax-friendly to this demographic- so that’s one reason to stay put. So moving to NoVA is combination of culture shock and tax shock, although in general Virginia’a tax policies are tax friendly to lower incomes even in NoVA (eg; get a used car to escape car tax etc).

  2. In the end, people in rural areas are Virginia residents and entitled to the same benefits as Virginians in urban areas–public health, education, Medicaid, mental health services, TANF, etc. I do not have the capability to make quantitative long range forecasts, but it would seem that it, in the long term, it would be to the state’s fiscal benefit to assist these areas in becoming adjusted to the new economy. Having a state with relative widespread prospering and vibrant areas versus one with prosperity limited to the I-95 corridor would make for a healthier state and one more attractive to businesses. That sort of situation would likely take some of the pressure off the urban areas and the cost of housing and traffic infrastructure in those areas.

    • Am I entitled to subsidized broadband? Was I entitled to the proceeds from the tobacco indemnification fund? Are the schools in NoVa subsidized by funds transferred from southside Virginia? Do you believe the 2,214 people of Highland County (or 4,470 people of Bath County) pay enough in gas taxes to pay for their roads? Bath County collects 0.45% in property taxes, Highland County 0.46%. Prince William County? 1.2075%

      Don’t fool yourself – the Republicans in Virginia have been running a welfare state in rural Virginia for decades. Yes, the same Republicans who squeal about “welfare mothers” in the inner cities. Those Republicans.

  3. I used to think, the ones with the education and motivation, the ones who want to move, do move, and the ‘stuck in place’ folks simply are the ones left behind, mainly consisting of those sentimentally attached to the familiar exurban or rural life.

    But increasingly it seems we are talking about a third, middle group: those who realize they could move to obtain better-paying employment in the urban centers where the good jobs are, but come up against two barriers: (1) the cost of housing (and child care if applicable) in those urban centers, and (2) the cost (or unavailability) of alternative home care for disabled or elderly relatives left behind.

    For this middle group it isn’t just “proximity” to family and friends and their lifestyle; it’s the economic value of your leaning on them, and/or of their leaning on you.

    So I agree with DJR, housing vouchers would help, at least with category (1). The other piece of this puzzle is the shortage of home care workers due to, as I understand it, the inadequate compensation ceiling allowed under Medicare/Medicaid. I know you’re hostile to increasing those costs, but leaving these good people trapped in rural homes where they don’t want to be has its own cost — as the high unemployment and the opiod epidemic illustrate.

    The high cost of housing in those urban areas begs for more discussion of the question you raise, properly, every time we get into this: what to do about restrictive zoning and inadequate public transportation options that drive up the urban housing cost. I used to live in a streetcar suburb of Richmond (now called the Fan District) that was built to house the enormous influx of rural folks coming to the City from the 1890s to 1920s — that was entry-level housing for families in those days, while singles moved into the rooming houses carved out of those oversized homes on Grace Street, and the whole district was served by a relatively dense network of streetcars. All that came into being on what had been open farmland until it was built up.

    There is no comparable district in the Richmond area today, let alone Northern Virginia. The apartments anywhere near the price range of the cost of housing in rural Virginia are that cheap only because nobody wants to live in them — whether because of their run-down condition or the crime in the neighborhood or the lack of transportation or all of these.

    I think it’s going to require tackling both the urban housing problem and the rural home-care problem before the migration of that “middle group,” to urban areas where the jobs are, begins in earnest.

    • Very interesting point about the role of elderly care. Rural areas tend to have older populations on average, which means they likely have more elderly people requiring assistance. Given the fact that rural people tend to have lower incomes on average, they are less likely to be able to afford the assisted living arrangements that more affluent urban residents can. The need to care for elderly parents may tie some rural residents to their communities.

      I have witnessed this first-hand. My (now-deceased) father-in-law living in Wilkes County, N.C., spent 15 years or so taking care of his wheelchair-bound mother (who made it to 102). She had a very modest income and relied on Medicaid. My father-in-law had to check on her almost every day. He would have stayed in Wilkes County regardless because that’s where his family and friends were, but the obligation to care for his mother trumped all other considerations.

  4. Acbar –

    Your comment regarding the Fan District of Richmond is wonderfully on target, so true. We had that capacity to build many “Fan Districts” back then in many places, including for example the old original downtown of Alexandria county, now since 1920 called Arlington. So you are right to ask, how did we lose our ability to build what we could build before, when we were so much poorer, and had so many fewer tools to use to succeed? What is it exactly that we have lost?

  5. I’m not sure there are that many people still stuck in rural areas. In the 1980s and 1990s Virginia’s non-metro counties had close to twice as many residents in their 20s than in their 60s. Most of them left. Today in non-metro counties the population in their 20s is considerably smaller than the population in their 60s.

    When it comes to poverty, the share of households receiving public assistance or food stamps in Richmond and Roanoke rivals the poorest counties in Southside and the Coalfields. I suspect the cost of living is also cheaper in Southside and the Coalfields.

    • Thank you for participating, Hamilton.

    • Thank you for the post.
      As a NoVA resident, I could now build on that comment to jump to the conclusion Virginia hyper-rural-sensitive and is bending over backwards to serve the rural areas with extreme low taxes etc. Of course that is only a hypothesis, so anyone can try to change my mind (or the mind of a hypothetical unbiased observer).

      • Ha ha — hyper-rural-sensitive indeed, as in roads and schools funds distribution. And yet they still leave the rural for the urban.

        • Census data shows the vast majority of rural Virginia counties attracted more residents than they lost in the last decade, the map tab here shows that well:https://netmigration.wisc.edu/ Their older skewed age distribution is why some have declined in population.

          Since agriculture’s share of the workforce collapsed after the Second World War, income levels in most rural parts of the U.S. have been slowly converging with urban areas. As the VDOE composite index of local ability to pay has been updated over time most rural divisions have gradually been required to provide more local funding. The 2018-2020 composite index requires many rural counties such as Mecklenburg, Louisa and Highland to cover the same or a larger share of their education costs than Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington.

          Jim said in an earlier post: “Doubling down on the 70-year-old economic development strategy of recruiting light manufacturing jobs will yield limited results”, one reason why is that the problems in Virginia’s rural counties today are not all the same problems they had 70 years ago or 30 years ago.

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            “Census data shows the vast majority of rural Virginia counties attracted more residents than they lost in the last decade, the map tab here shows that well:https://netmigration.wisc.edu/

            Thank you for that info, Hamilton, and the link too. It conforms with my rough observations and anecdotal experiences, traveling about, observing towns in Virginia, and talking to people living there. I believe those current trends will grow, particularly in those Va. town that work hard to build upon their assets, and create new assets to attract new residents.

            Indeed I have long believed this opportunity was the case, and now believe that case is grower stronger each year, particularly in Virginia, and for a myriad of reasons depending upon the region and the town in Virginia. Here are a few.

            1/ I do not believe the rural urban divide is anywhere near a great as it is characterized by some today, nor that it ever has been, although today new forces work to narrow them even more.

            For example, in the 1970s, there was a strong return to the country movement that greatly closed the urban country gap and that is still very powerful. You will find those powerful forces still at work up and down the Rocky Mountain and High plains west from the Canadian border down to the Mexican line. You will also find it still at work in many places on the East and West coasts of the US, and inland in many places. Indeed some of these trends started back after the American recovery from the Civil War as inflected through the rise of wealth from the industrial age as powered by the railroads, including the connectivity they provided from Maine to Florida.

            I saw these forces still powerfully at to work in rural areas, (where I spent a great deal of time throughout much of the country), that cultivated the “hospitality culture” from say New Paltz, N. Y., Sarasota, Lake Placid north through New England. Same to the Rocky Mountain West, New Mexico, and Arizona, not to mention California northward to Canada. The tremendous growth of many rural places largely bypassed Virginia, for a complex of reasons no longer in play, and/or if still in play reasons that can far more easily now be overcome. I will get into those new reasons and forces tomorrow here.

        • In a comment above, I stated:

          “I do not believe the rural urban divide is anywhere near a great as it is characterized by some today, nor that it ever has been, although today new forces work to narrow them even more.

          For example, in the 1970s, there was a strong return to the country movement that greatly closed the urban country gap and that is still very powerful.” End Quote.

          While I believe the truth of that quote, I suggest a huge and rising threat in our culture to it. Now in 2019, those powerful forces are found in ever fewer places in America, so are rapidly diminishing at our great peril, unless we work hard to close that gap again.

          Let me elaborate. Back in the 1960s and early 1970’s there arose a very strong back to country, back to earth, movement. This movement took many shapes and forms, manifest in many different kinds of human actions on the part of the 1960s generation. This included a rather astonishing and unexpected set of migrations. For example, in my travels throughout the Rocky Mountain west from the 1970’s thought 2005, I was often surprised to meet on the streets of places like Telluride, Silverton, Durango, Ouray, Jackson, and Aspen, people who had migrated to those places and stayed after growing up in the Washington DC region during the 1960s. These included all of kinds and sorts of people, rich and poor alike of all classes, backgrounds, and occupations.

          And, also, there were those too who stayed a few years out west and then returned east, profoundly changed.

          These people, those who stayed and those who returned after a lengthy stay, seemed to me far more rooted than the urban dwellers in DC who never left for those then very rural places. For the migrants on average had a far greater sense of life and humanity. They were folks, for example, who were less likely to make themselves rich at the expense of their neighbors, cutting off their ability to get to work, for example.

          At the very same time, you would find within the Washington DC region during the 1960s and 1970s, a not insignificant group of DC urban dwellers who were very serious about how they spent their free time in outdoor places, and often they spent it in quite rural places, on weekends and holidays – hikers, bikers, rafters, campers, climbers, for example. You would find the climbers mostly at the New River Gorge and around Seneca Rocks in West Virginia, or as far north as the Shawangunks outside New Paltz, New York. And if they happened to be ice climbers too, you would find them in daylight working ice high up on road cuts through the mountains of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York as far north as lake Placid or northern New Hampshire.

          Many of these people today, although successful in DC, would likely tell you that their times spent in these rural places were among many of the highlights of the lives. And here, if you listened carefully, you would find that those highlights often had far more to do with the kinds of different people and cultures they met, enjoyed, and learned from, and laughed with, and yes, loved. What you would almost NEVER find would be the sort of condescension, snark, prejudice, bias, and deep seated hate, and fear, that drives so many conversations and discussions today about other people different from ourselves.

          Life is filled with paradox, irony, and the inexplicable. Each generation must find its own way, yet each generation must also return to its roots, and if it fails to do so, that generation will put itself in great peril, the risk of being a lost generation. For this 1960s generation was in many cases escaping the Greatest Generation. Hence a paradox. I once asked a member of the Greatest Generation who grew up mostly in Chevy Chase and Washington DC, a combat Marine in the Pacific, who endured four epic campaigns, what was the single event or group of people that most influenced him in the Marine Corps.

          “Working with men in the Civilian Conservation Corp building the Blue Ridge Parkway,” he said without the slightest hesitation.

          For him, later a battalion commander in the Pacific, that work with the men of the Civilian Conservation Corp was the great game changer. Everything he did after that in the Marine Corps or elsewhere, followed from what he learned on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the 1930’s depression.

          Later, thinking about it, and knowing him, his comment made total sense. This was his discovery of the real world, his experience as a young man confronted with reality, its demand on him to grow up. And it made total sense. These men on that parkway in those times, were the men mostly responsible for winning the Second War, even though they came from all over America, but disproportionately so from the rural places, farms, and small towns, all over America. I learned that later for sure, but really learned it from others far earlier. I guess that is why I took such offense at UVA / Virginia Tech football games at Charlottlesville in the 1960s as explained here earlier, and at Teresa Sullivan’s last Uva graduation graduation video in 2018, also explained here earlier.

          • “What you would almost NEVER find would be the sort of condescension, snark, prejudice, bias, and deep seated hate, and fear, that drives so many conversations and discussions today about other people different from ourselves.”

            Maybe not in Telluride (pop. 2,444) but try Muscle Shoals, AL or Sturgis, MI.

  6. So.. are we saying that Government should be responsible for affordable housing, housing vouchers, etc?

    The issues with rural Virginia economies are not that different from a lot of states rural economies where one of the big differences is the level of education – most rural areas education systems are not at the same level or urban area school systems.

    And yes, there is the nuclear family issues – and family-owned land/house, etc. Rural folks have gardens, smaller homes, heat with wood, have chickens/hogs, hunt deer, etc.

    Not only would they end up as janitors or service sector workers – they could no more afford a place to live than the man in the moon.

    But I’m still curious about the call for more affordable housing… is that governments job?

  7. A lot of people seem focused on the state sending more money to rural areas than populated ones. What truly are the numbers? Also, what portions of income do people in each location pay for taxes and what services do they have available for their tax dollars?

    There are a lot of rural people who do not depend on tax provided income and are self-sufficient! Please do not assume everyone is dependent!!!! Most do not expect all the services urban people have access to. But also do not assume that rural people can afford to pay the whole cost of deploying new technology when the costs per mile are much higher than in populated areas and there are fewer people per mile to share the cost. Remember for example that the electric lines will only be put underground in our more populated areas but that all electric rate payers share the cost. The General Assembly decided that would be done.

    Historically, rural areas provided by far the majority of income for the state for many years. Things have changed, but we got where we are because of the assets contributed by rural people. Things got provided in populated areas that allowed them to grow.

    Also consider: There are some things that happen in rural areas that our society depends upon. In order to get those things done, we need people living in rural areas – and support in terms of medical care, etc. Is it realistic to think that everyone living in rural areas CAN leave?

    • “A lot of people seem focused on the state sending more money to rural areas than populated ones. What truly are the numbers? Also, what portions of income do people in each location pay for taxes and what services do they have available for their tax dollars?”

      Great question and a question our state government wants to keep hidden.

      “Also consider: There are some things that happen in rural areas that our society depends upon. In order to get those things done, we need people living in rural areas – and support in terms of medical care, etc. Is it realistic to think that everyone living in rural areas CAN leave?”

      Less great question. Nobody ever said that everyone in rural areas must leave. However, the problem of too little economic opportunity relative to the population is reality in rural Virginia. We’ve spent half a century trying to spark demand in rural America. Maybe it’s time to start drawing down supply.

  8. “Imagine a stock clerk in Ohama who loses her job. She could look for a similar position locally, hoping to match her former salary of just under $28,000. Another option would be moving to San Francisco, where the economy is booming and the median salary for the same position is $35,240 — well above what she could make it she stays put.”

    That assumes she will still have that job as the rural economy continues to falter.

  9. I’m always amazed by the theory that holds housing pricers in Virginia’s urban areas prevent people living in Virginia’s rural areas from moving.

    People pour into Northern Virginia from Latin America. Some legally, some illegally. They often have limited education, limited or no money and limited English language skills. Yet they somehow manage. The supposedly sky high housing costs don’t dissuade them from seeking a better life in a high cost environment. Their kids go to decent schools. Many of those children prosper and go onto college, the military or trade school. Once graduated, they get good jobs and continue to prosper.

    The idea that an uneducated woman from El Salvador can move to Northern Virginia and make her way whereas a 45 year old high school graduate with good English skills from Martinsville can’t do the same is BS.

Leave a Reply