Urban to rural: The next migration is now!
The "Great Migration" of the early twentieth century had segregation and the racist policies of the South as one of its roots. The largest human migration, Chunyun — the Spring Festival Season in China — is founded on the idea of visiting one's family. Today, we are witnessing a historic migration in the United States from metropolitan to rural areas that many view as an escape from rising crime rates, urban decay, or maybe something else.
Before we dig into the current exodus from American cities, we should have a quick peek inside those other historic population movements
Let's start with a second look at the "Great Migration." Historians bookend it somewhere between 1916 and 1970, when more than six million Black Americans moved from the southern states to northern and western cities. Putting this in perspective, in 1940 (roughly the midpoint), the U.S. Census pegged the entire Black population of America at around twelve million folks. That's right: over fifty percent of all Blacks moved out of the South during that 50-year period!
Most say it was to escape Jim Crow and racial prejudice. But Blacks, once installed at their new addresses in cities like St. Louis, Chicago, and even Omaha, still faced blatant racism, riots, and even the bastion of the unionized left — the AFL — advocating the segregation of Blacks and Whites in the workplace. Racism is partly a cover story for why they moved. In reality, they moved for jobs — factory jobs, railroad jobs, warehouse jobs — that paid better than sharecropped agriculture. The Great Migration was an economic event, not so much a social cause.
Every spring, halfway around the world, the Chinese celebrate by traveling home for a week. Boarding trains, planes, and automobiles, they crisscross the country by the billions — 3.5 billion at last count. Yes, it is about having a week's vacation, but even as recent as a decade or so ago, this mass migration was nowhere near this size. Its growth isn't about a resurgence in family relations; it's about returning home from jobs taken in urban areas and in specialized economic zones. Because of government limits on relocating, a third of China's entire workforce has escaped rural agriculture for the cities by leaving their families behind to maintain an "official" residence. It's the Great Migration without really moving, and again, it's about economics.
So much for the history lesson — now let's flip forward to the present time. We'll call this period "Backwards Land." People aren't escaping the poverty of subsistence agriculture to live in cities; they're doing exactly the opposite. The giant concrete jungles of the west, the upper mid-west, and the east are witnessing a new mass migration — people are leaving town! Is it because of crime? Is it because of liberal politics? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Not so fast! Guess what's causing it. Shhhh...it's economics.
Actually, it's a special kind of economics we'll call "Tech-nomics." During the "Industrial Migration" of the late 1800s, people moved to the cities because technology created jobs. Interchangeable parts, assembly lines, electricity, even communications created millions of opportunities to earn more money than staying on the farm hoeing chard. People moved from rural areas to urban centers because they were paid more.
Today the reason for the opposite migration is also simple, only this time it's not about income. It's about costs. It's too expensive to live in cities, and technology now affords the opportunity for millions to work anywhere. The urban areas seeing the greatest exodus are mostly those with the highest costs of living. And perhaps the only upside to the COVID-19 epidemic is the realization by companies that people don't all have to show up daily in the same physical place to be just as productive.
Large firms like Nationwide Insurance, Hitachi, and Novartis are all embracing the idea of remote work. These giants, along with scores of other companies big and small, are either moving most or all of their workforce online or encouraging voluntary online moves by their employees. And the employees love it! A recent Gallup poll found that over three fifths of all workers forced to move online because of the pandemic would prefer to stay that way forever. More importantly, once freed from the burden of showing up at the office, these workers and their families are hightailing it out of town — migrating to the countryside.
Let's take a look at an example. People are fleeing the San Francisco area by the tens of thousands. Once they no longer need to toil away in nondescript cubicle farms, why would they stay in one of the most expensive places on Earth? Housing, transportation, taxes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera — why not move your employment online and your family to, say, Boise, an emerging "Zoomtown"?
In 2019, the median household income in San Francisco was about $114,500, and the median home price was around $1.4 million. That's a ratio of almost 11 to 1. That same year in Idaho, the median income was $60,000, and, according to the Boise Regional Realtors, the median home price was about $360,000 — a 6 to 1 ratio. And that assumes you retain your same job and same employer but that your salary gets cut by 50%. True, you may have to take a small pay reduction, but not by half, and yet your housing costs will be cut by almost 400%!
Yes, a few people are fleeing cities to get a simpler, less crime-filled, less polluted life. Most, however, are leaving because, just like in the 1800s, technology has moved the jobs. A better quality of life? Yes. Lower costs? Definitely yes! It's about economics folks, and full disclosure: I wrote and filed this article from my home while eating nachos in my underwear.
Kevin Cochrane teaches economics and business at Colorado Mesa University and is a visiting professor of economics at The University of International Relations in Beijing.
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Image via Needpix.