A U-Haul moving truck leaves Zion National Park in Utah. Photo by Kai Schreiber. Used under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

There’s a school of thought that the best way to solve rural economic problems is to move people to cities.

Following this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, you wind up with some obviously flawed policies. When an urban neighborhood has a crime problem, for example, the police chief doesn’t tell lawful residents to move to a better neighborhood. That doesn’t reduce crime. At best, it centralizes it. Moving the pieces around doesn’t solve the city’s underlying problem.

The same is true for rural economics. Simply moving people from rural areas with poor economic performance to urban areas with better economic performance ignores the fact that rural and urban areas are economically interdependent. If you let a problem fester in one place, it’s going to affect the other.

Sarah Jones makes this point in her essay in the New Republic, “Telling People to Move Won’t Solve Rural Poverty.”

“It sounds easy enough,” writes Jones, who is a New Republic staff writer. “If you can’t find a job where you are, move.” But is it really that simple?

“The problems that plague rural America did not originate there, and their consequences do not end where cities begin,” Jones says.

If there’s an underlying problem, moving folks around isn’t going to solve it.

Jones is taking on a recent post in the libertarian website Reason, and she also is responding the National Review’s, Kevin Williamson.

There’s another troubling problem with the idea that relocation equals rejuvenation. It implies that the people who remain in struggling rural areas are just so much economic flotsam. The ones who stay in rural places, this argument goes, are the folks that can’t make it in the rough-and-tumble “real” world.

This would be laughable if it weren’t so condescending. People who live in rural areas know exactly what kind of hard work it takes to make a life there, and they know the rewards that come from that effort, as well.

The “move-’em-out” argument does not address the reality of rural (or urban) living. Rural places are complex, and poor rural areas didn’t all reach that point along the same path. Jones quotes University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Ann Tickamyer:

“Any time you make descriptions about what the problems in rural places are, and what people should do, you’re generalizing way beyond what is reasonable. The Mississippi Delta is really different from central Appalachia and the Texas borderlands.”

So the next time you hear someone use the relocation solution to “solve” rural poverty, explain (politely or not, as circumstances dictate) that things are not so simple. Moving away from a problem doesn’t fix it. It changes the circumstances for those who move, perhaps, and not always for the better. But the underlying problem remains. Thankfully, plenty of folks – both rural and urban – know this and live their lives accordingly.

Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder.

Correction: An earlier versions of this story incorrectly stated the publication for which Kevin Williams writes. It is the National Review. 

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