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Our Austin, Texas, neighborhood decided to throw a pitch-in dinner. The local grocery chain agreed to supply fried chicken. Neighbors were to bring the rest.
Our ’hood was impossibly hip and endlessly “creative.” How hip? Well, when Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant lived in Austin for a few years, he bought a house just a few blocks from where we lived. We were at the cultural center of one of the most “productive” cities in America, a hive of highly-educated “creatives” bent on making the next must-have gizmo or super-selling thing-a-ma-bob.
The day of the pitch-in came around and the chicken arrived, which was lucky, because nobody really pitched in. People brought their own chairs and their own meals from home (including a lot of to-go boxes from Whole Foods), but the food tables were bare. People sat in their own chairs and ate their own food, all perfectly happy.
We looked around and realized we lived in a place with people who could store all the world’s knowledge in a “cloud” but didn’t know how to work for any common good.
The depressing Austin neighborhood experience came to mind again while reading Eduardo Porter’s lament in the New York Times about rural places – communities, Porter asserts, that have no economic future. Jobs are accumulating in dense urban areas, he explained. People — especially highly educated people — are simply more productive when they cluster in places like Austin.
Porter’s not wrong. People in Austin are creating the stuff everybody will be buying next year. It’s where Apple decided to put its new office. The city is insanely productive, just as Porter described.
What Porter doesn’t account for is that, with all this productivity, people in Austin still don’t know how to make a proper green bean casserole. And that has profound economic consequences.
We now live in La Grange, Texas, (pop. 4,800), and at a recent choir pitch-in we had five different kinds of soup, four or five deserts, three different kinds of bread and tea. That was for, and from, 18 people. Apple doesn’t want us, but at least we can cook. And we know how to share.
Porter would say the ability to put on a pitch-in dinner has very little to do with economic productivity. According to his economic formulas, he’s right. But those measurements are flawed because they don’t take into account the economic value of community.
Economists have documented what they call “community effects,” real-life impacts that places have on the people who live there. Community effects can increase or decrease crime. They affect graduation rates at local schools. Most relevant here, community effects determine a person’s future earnings, i.e., productivity.
It turns out that rural communities are very good at producing people who earn more than the national average when they grow up. Rural communities have “effects” that lead to children to form families when they are older. And rural communities are particularly good at keeping the kids who are raised there out of jail.
Rural communities are a source of people who are productive – more productive, in fact, that kids raised in the dense, “creative” urban areas that enthrall Porter.
The comparisons aren’t even close, according to a massive study of incomes and community effects by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nate Hendren. In three out of four rural counties, children who grew up in poor families went on to earn more than the national average by the time they were 26. On the other hand, only 29 percent of central city counties had the same beneficial impact on poor children.
The reasons for this remarkable upward mobility by rural kids have everything to do with place and community. Rural communities were less segregated, they were more likely to have intact families, schools were better and there was more “civic capital.” It turns out that places where people know how to hold a pitch-in dinner are places where kids grow up to be especially productive.
Yes, the economy is growing in dense cities. But the places that are great for productivity according to Porter’s calculations have the opposite effect on children. Kids from poor families who grow up in downtown Austin, Texas, don’t earn as much as kids at the same income level who grow up in La Grange. The same is true when the measures are marriage rates or incarceration rates.
“Rural areas produce better outcomes,” said Harvard’s Hendren. It’s simple, undeniable and a fact totally missing from Porter’s analysis.
We can all speculate on why Porter and others discount the economic worth of rural communities. I think it’s because we’ve lost sight of what constitutes value. We count jobs and individual “productivity” and ignore the importance of place. Community, real community, is so lacking in contemporary America that we’ve forgotten what it looks like. We don’t even notice when it’s missing.
Last Saturday, we joined a community Posada in La Grange. Two young people dressed as Mary and Joseph. With a pair of donkeys (Jose and Hee Haw), they led a procession re-enacting another couple’s long-ago search for lodging. Our Mary and Joseph would knock on the door of a church and would be turned away. No room at the inn. The group would walk on to the next church, and the next, until they were welcomed at the final stop.
In La Grange, the Posada ended at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. After a very brief service, we were all invited to a dinner. It was pitch-in and there were soups, home-made tamales and all kinds of sweets.
It’s likely that most of the young people who ate under the trees Saturday night will grow up and move out of La Grange to find work. They will earn more money and form more solid families because they grew up here rather than Brooklyn or Portland or Austin.
A portion of their economic advantage will come from a December night long before, when they walked together through a little town on the Texas prairie, came to a full table and no one left hungry.
Bill Bishop is founding co-editor of the Daily Yonder and author of the book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (Houghton Mifflin, 2008).
“Speak Your Piece” is the Daily Yonder’s version of an op/ed column. Opinions expressed in “Speak Your Piece” are those of the author, unless otherwise noted.