An American politician has finally stated an inconvenient truth long recognized as good policy by economists, demographers and urban commentators: if someone lives in a declining area, they should move to one with better jobs. This politician was none other than the President of the United States.
On Wednesday, July 26th, President Trump caused a minor stir by telling upstate New Yorkers who are dwelling in perpetually-tough economies that they should move to states with brighter prospects.
“You’re going to need people to work in these massive plants,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal. "I’m going to start explaining to people: When you have an area that just isn’t working like upper New York state, where people are getting very badly hurt, and then you’ll have another area 500 miles away where you can’t get people, I’m going to explain, you can leave.”
His statement was in response to the decision by Foxconn, a technology company, to relocate its headquarters in Wisconsin rather than New York.
The statement was certainly not politically correct -- it was criticized by New York state officials from both parties -- and may not even be the right answer to the economic problems in cities like Buffalo. But it was still a brave statement for a politician to make, and one that should at least be floated around in the conversation on how America will deal with its challenges.
Because upstate New York is not America's only struggling area. As the largest metros account for increasingly greater shares of our population and GDP, there are countless rural ones that are in decline, and long have been. These include parts of Appalachia, the Midwest, the Great Plains and even the small towns within otherwise booming regions. For all of Texas' rapid growth, for example, one-third of its counties are actually losing population.
What should be done for these places, all of which must find some way or another to fund their schools, police and other core services? The status quo among the political classes, both left and right, and at state and federal level, is to prop them up. Democratic leaders do this for declining cities -- think when President Obama gave Detroit a $300 million post-bankruptcy bailout, continuing the legacy of federal largesse to the terminally-declining city. Republicans may be even worse on this issue. As the party of rural America, they continue steering infrastructure money away from productive cities, instead funding roads and bridges in the less-intensive American countryside. It seems that neither party will entertain the “organic”, live-or-die approach of letting localities sustain themselves.
An interesting middle ground in this conversation has surfaced from Strong Towns, a blog that advocates for fiscal solvency, namely in municipalities facing this dilemma. The blog's main message is that these cities, which for decades have spent wastefully, often thanks to "free" money from the federal government, need to start wising up. Does it make sense to build traffic lights, with their exorbitant steel and electricity costs, when stop signs or roundabouts would do? Will new convention centers really save cities that nobody wants to visit anyway? Is single-family zoning the strongest way to generate tax revenue from a well-located plot of land? These are the kinds of questions that Strong Towns asks.
A third standpoint has also been emerging that echoes Trump's statements, and may be considered a sort of realist libertarianism. It's the idea that if cities have no further rationale for existing, they should fold up, impelling residents there to move to areas with more jobs. Such mass relocation is an established part of U.S. history: because of racial oppression, African-Americans did it during multiple "Great Migrations," moving from the South to northern industrial cities; the Okies did the same during the Dust Bowl, moving to California; and it remains a defining life feature of the immigrants who enter our nation today.
Recently in National Review, Kevin Williamson wrote a polemic suggesting this for poor white Americans. He explained that many of the people in his native west Texas have endured generations of drug addiction and welfare dependency, thanks in part to living in an economically-depressed area. He thought the only way people there will improve their situations is by moving.
"The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die," wrote Williamson.
Perhaps the situations in west Texas and west New York are not entirely the same. But there is a parallel connecting many of America's declining areas. Oftentimes, they first thrived on a singular industry (usually involving natural resources); they've long been declining; and they have no compelling economic future. The U.S. government can continue subsidizing those areas nonetheless, and the people within them. Or such people can move out and improve their prospects. Trump's suggestion that they do the latter may be taboo, but that doesn't mean it's not worth mentioning.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]