Manufacturers that provided thousands of well-paying, middle class jobs — General Motors, General Electric, Hyster — were closing. Neighborhoods were crumbling. By the time [Tara] Holycross graduated from high school in 2004, a city best known for its massive downtown grain elevator and as the hometown of actors Dick and Jerry Van Dyke was scrambling to create new opportunities.I'll defer for another day discussion of whether a world in which people have to work fewer hours for the stuff they desire than used to be the case is an improvement or a step backwards from a world in which the wealth gaps were narrower. Perhaps there are new agglomeration economies in the financial and information technology sectors, or perhaps the emergence of two or three United States's worth of middle-class people in Asia, Latin America, and the former Soviet Bloc is a net loss to social welfare.
Ten years later, this city of 32,500 still is struggling. But Holycross and some of her classmates are doing just fine — because they moved.
They're doctors and athletic trainers, software specialists and financial advisers. They're living all over the country — from Chicago to Charleston, South Carolina, to Boulder, Colorado — where they found solid jobs that reward the kind of education they have. Though still early in their careers, they've surpassed Danville's median household income of $35,000 and expect to do much better. Holycross and four classmates interviewed said about half of their class of fewer than 50 left town, and those they're in touch with landed good positions.
"I knew there wasn't an opportunity for me to have my career" in Danville, said Holycross, 28, a third-generation native who now works as an athletic trainer for a hospital system in Beloit, Wisconsin, about 90 miles northwest of Chicago.
Their experience is a counterpoint to the desperation gripping so many rural and manufacturing communities in the Midwest that have been hard hit by global economic changes. The flow of educated workers from struggling communities to areas with brighter job opportunities might, to some extent, help shore up the U.S. middle class, which has been squeezed by a widening gap between the richest Americans and everyone else.
While Wall Street traders and software CEOs soared to enormous affluence, waves of people fell out of the middle class as manufacturing's share of the economy shrank. Following the downside arc of the wealth gap was inevitable for many who stayed in stricken factory towns where jobs disappeared. For others, though, escaping meant separating their own fate from that of their hometowns."Wealth gap" suggests that financialization, or perhaps the Big Cities, are the cause, not the improved living conditions for some of that Third World working class. The article suggests, though, that the opportunities to pick up and leave correlate with the human capital.
The trend of more-educated people moving and less-educated staying began to emerge several years ago. A Census Bureau study found that more than half of highly educated workers who moved between 2005 and 2010 left their counties. By contrast, 70 percent of people without high school diplomas who moved did so within the same county.On the other hand, we've noted previously the difficulty states that export human capital face in providing decent universities whilst sending graduates to other states. The article does not tackle this issue, although it notes the phenomenon.
Decades ago, many unskilled workers were able to migrate to capitalize on better conditions elsewhere, as when field workers moved from the South to the Midwest for factory jobs after World War II.
But good blue-collar jobs are now harder to find anywhere — one factor that may help explain why mobility overall has been declining for several decades and why it dropped sharply during the recession.
"If we pushed someone who's stayed in Detroit to suddenly hit the road and move to Chicago, would that person suddenly do better? Or has that person stayed behind exactly because he or she can't find a good-paying job in Chicago?" said Danny Yagan, a University of California economist who studies mobility.
A survey of nearly 3,000 2012 graduates of 15 public universities in Michigan — a state especially afflicted by manufacturing's decline — found that 37 percent were living in another state a year later. That was down from 49 percent in a similar 2007 survey. But those who did move were far more likely to have a full-time job: 86 percent compared with 68 percent of those who stayed put. And they tended to earn significantly more.Research is like that: it depends. (Note that the article describes "doctors and athletic trainers, software specialists and financial advisers," not tattoo artists, philosophy majors, teachers, or Feminist Studies specialists.)
Those who moved from Michigan to Illinois upgraded from a state median income below $47,000 to one over $55,000 in 2012. Research indicates that people who moved to places with stronger economies often do about as well as the workers already there. Less clear is whether such a move translates into more overall wealth or a better lifestyle.
That noted, the Rust Belt communities would still like to keep some of their kids around.
Danville's population has dipped by about 1,000 residents in the past 20 years. Whatever influx it has had has come mainly from lower-income people seeking cheap housing. The poverty rate has reached 29 percent, compared with 18.1 percent in 2000.Indeed not, and there might be some passages of Sinclair Lewis or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Sherwood Anderson to suggest that "doesn't really compare" might be about more than jobs.
Warehousing and distribution centers have replaced some of the manufacturing jobs. Local businesses are funding scholarships for students who agree to stay home after graduation.
But vacant and dilapidated homes scar big chunks of neighborhoods, the historic downtown still has scores of vacant buildings and unemployment is almost 10 percent. City officials are hoping legislators allow the city to build a casino to bring in more jobs.
"It's taken a long time to stabilize, and it will take years before we start moving in the next direction," said Mayor Scott Eisenhauer.
The situation is much the same in Flint, Michigan, where about 80,000 once worked in GM factories, but where the population has dropped from 200,000 to below 100,000 since most of those jobs dried up. Mayor Dayne Walling said his town's master plan now includes razing entire neighborhoods.
Struggling towns are emphasizing college and trade school to many young people, hoping that a higher-quality workforce will attract employers yet also aware that education makes it easier for young people to leave.
For Stephanie Shinn Gaydos, a 2004 high school graduate from Danville who now practices medicine in Charleston, South Carolina, moving back to Danville isn't an option.
"That's a shame because I'm close to my family," she said, "but I am so happy with the opportunities (in Charleston). It doesn't really compare.