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Want to Boost Your Income and Social Rank? The Answer is Location, Location, Location!

The May 19, 2012 issue of USA Today contains a front page story that reads; “The American Dream? Depends on Where You Live.” According to a recent study by Pew charitable trust, in the United States there is a much better chance of doing well economically if you reside in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massechusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Utah – especially after one’s prime earning years are passed. Conversely, those who reside in Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texasare not only less likely to continue progressing economically toward the end of their lives, but actually are more likely to decline. (Prime working / earning years in this cases were defined as the years between 35 and 49.)

“Timothy Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin -Madison, says people are more likely to do better for themselves – and their children are likely to do better – in state s with more educated residents and more dynamic economies, such as those in the Northeast.” (I had a boss many years ago who would have referred to this as “a firm grasp of the obvious.” I think the more comtemporary Valley Girl expression is “Well, Duh!”. The article goes on the say that Scott Winship, a fellow of economic studies with the Brookings Institution, says economic mobility (the ability of Americans to move up the econmic ladder) is particulary important for the poor, pointing out that 40% of those born in the bottom rung of the economic ladder stay there forever.

I have wondered about this for many years. My career has taken me all over the world, and I have relocated many times, from big cities like Chicago to mid-size metroplitain areas like St. Louis and Phoenix to small towns like Moline. I’ve also lived and worked in Canada, Iraq, and Afghanistan. One thing I have observed bears out a commonly ststed statistic: over 50% of people live within 50 miles of their birthplace. I’ve always thought that was pretty silly; a lot of the places I have lived, and far more of the places I have visited for work or tourism, are quite unpleasant. I remember emerging after second shift at John Deere harvester Works in East Moline, Illinois one night in particular when the actual temperature was well under 20 degrees below (Fahrenheit), and the wind chill made it something like 70 degrees below zero. Of course no one’s vehicles would start, and it was literally a lethal place to be outside for more than just a couple of minutes. Similarly, in Grand Rapids Michigan where I graduated from calvin College back in 1976, the lake effect snow and biting winds combined to make more than half of the year a complete misery. Detroit, Minneapolis, and other northern cities were even worse. I lived in chicago for a few years, where the combination of snow, wind, and traffic volume made it the city I was most happy to see in my rear view mirror as i migrated southward back in 1988. I would have to say that my favorite place to live was Phoenix, Arizona. I loved the 300+ days of sunshine per year, the beauty of the mountains, and the fact that so many people were not Arizon natives, making it easy to form social contacts and friendships in this less cliquish community. But the summer heat was a deterrent for my wife, and my career took me back toward the Midwest anyway. St. Louis has proven to be a pretty good compromise, with mild winters, mild summers, and a city that is big enough to offer a lot of cultural opportunities like the St. Louis Zoo, the Missouri Botanical gardens, the St. Louis Cardinals (that one is much more important to my children than to me), and extended family within driving distance – not too close, not too far away. It’s also big enough to provide employment opportunities, educational institutions like Washington University and other important elements that make it a pretty good launching point for children and grandchildren.
So, while the big cities of the North rank higher on the economic mobility scale, they don’t do much for me on the happiness and quality-of-life scale. And in the end, with over half of the US population effectively committing their progeny to life within 50 miles of their birthplace, I have frequently wondered why more people do not move from these miserable cities in exceptionally cold and unhospitable places. I have concluded based on my own observations that the reasons include these:
1. Fear of changing jobs, likelihood of being unable to replace income.
2. Fear of leaving extended family and friends, likelihood of being unable to replace that social netwrok
3. Fear of the unknown / unexperienced, on a par with unwillingness to try a new food
4. Lack of comprehension that there are better ways to live.

Of course I have heard a number of people rationalize their choices to remain where they are. Those are always interesting conversations. I remember one that went something like this:
Bill: “So Dave, tell why you live here in the Detroit area. I mean, you’re an engineer; you clearly have skills that would allow you to live in a much lower crime rate area with better weather, less traffic, and generally a newer / cleaner infrastructure.”
Dave: “Oh, I don’t know. I like it here. Iv’e always been a 4 seasons kind of guy; I enjoy the changes in the seasons, and we don’t really go downtown much. We mostly stay out here in the suburbs. Besides, my family is here. My wife’s family is here. My kids are in school, involved in sports, and have friends here.”
Rationalization is the real opiate of the masses.

I guess I should be pleased. After all, if everyone was ambitious enough to leave the small towns, miserable enough to leave the noise / crime / pollution / traffic / weather of the big northern cities, and courageous enough to relocate, they would all live in the middle lattitudes of the country and they would bring many of these problems with them. I just feel sorry for their children, grandchildren, etc. My perception is that it’s similar to the pattern so often present in victims of physical and mental abuse; even when they escape one abusive relationship, they immediately find another one because that is what they have become accustomed to – they simply know no other way to live.

What do you think?

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