The president saw a nation divided in two. Nearly half its population had moved into teeming cities where corporate leaders were amassing the greatest personal fortunes the world had ever seen. The other half was stuck in rural America—stuck, in the words of the historian David Kennedy, with “economic insecurity, inadequate health care, poor schools, rutted roads, cultural torpor, and the near-total absence of increasingly common urban amenities.” The year was 1908, and Teddy Roosevelt responded by establishing a Commission on Country Life. Its task, the president told Congress, was to diagnose and halt “the constant draining away of so much of the best elements in the rural population.”
I’ve been thinking about the Country Life Commission recently, not because it succeeded in making country life more attractive (the share of urbanized Americans has grown without pause since 1820 and doubled since 1900), but because it tried.
We’re in the midst of a similar schism at the moment, a dichotomy that has been of singular focus since the 2016 election. The divide today is more precisely between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan economies (many midsize cities are struggling too). But aside from rolling back environmental laws and promoting scattered subsidy deals (Carrier, Foxconn), Donald Trump hasn’t showed much interest in what ails the places that helped bring him to power. In a July interview with the Wall Street Journal, the president went so far as to say, “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.’ ”
The plight of post-industrial cities like Buffalo, New York, as well as rural communities in Appalachia and the South, is also being dismissed by thinkers on the left and the right. National Review’s Kevin Williamson wrote in 2016, “these dysfunctional, downscale communities …
deserve to die.” Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman recently offered a similar prognosis: “Smaller cities have nothing going for them except historical luck, which eventually tends to run out.” The underlying idea is that America has just too many cities, and Americans have to fix that problem by moving to the prosperous ones.
Fixing cities that aren’t doing so well is difficult, speculative, and expensive, the economist’s argument goes, whereas helping their residents move to thriving places is a tried-and-true solution. There is certainly reason to move to opportunity. After a century of convergence, incomes across states are diverging again. During the postwar era, low-wage cities experienced faster wage growth—catching up to their high-wage counterparts. Since 1980, that trend has vanished. High-wage, high-skill cities, the ones Richard Florida called “superstar cities,” are increasingly pulling away from the rest of the country.
Mark Muro at the Brookings Institution is one of many economists tracking the schism.
A little more than half the U.S. population lives in its 53 largest metros—those with more than 1 million residents. Since the financial crisis, these places account for more than 93 percent of U.S. population growth, two-thirds of economic output, and 73 percent of employment gains. All those shares are growing. Those numbers fall rapidly and progressively as you look at midsize cities, small cities, and rural areas. By the numbers, America is splitting into two separate countries—a wealthy metropolitan country, and everywhere else—which poses challenges to everything from monetary policy to political consensus.
When Saskia Sassen popularized the term in the early 1990s, she noted that “global cities” were more and more oriented toward each other, rather than inward toward their own hinterlands, perpetuating a diminished role of the nation-state. In December, the Upshot’s Emily Badger put this in practical terms: Where San Francisco Bay shipyards once drew timber and engine parts from rural towns and manufacturing cities across America, today’s Silicon Valley companies are much more likely to interact with Japanese investors, Chinese regulators, and European lawyers.
Hence the focus on helping Americans move. This is not as easy as it sounds: Yale law professor David Schleicher has laid out three issues that have contributed to Americans’ declining geographic mobility: zoning restrictions that raise housing prices in coastal cities, occupational licensing requirements that make it hard for professionals to cross state lines, and welfare benefits that are difficult to take from place to place. *Those barriers aren’t going anywhere: In many places, high housing prices are swallowing an entire generation’s disposable income, negating wage gains. Still, even economists who advocate a Rust Belt revival based on higher education and immigration, like Bloomberg View’s Noah Smith, think consolidation might be necessary. Smith has written, “It probably makes sense for the country to have fewer, larger cities. That change will require a lot of people moving.”
It doesn’t help that there are relatively few big ideas for revitalizing the left-behind places, be they rural communities, small cities, or struggling neighborhoods. Shortly after the 2016 election, Vox’s Matt Yglesias proposed relocating federal agencies to Midwestern cities. “Each of these regulatory agencies is surrounded by a swarm of highly paid lawyers, economists, and lobbyists who make careers out of influencing their decisions,” he wrote. “Right now, those folks all live in the DC metro area, where they drive up the cost of already expensive housing. Their spending would do a lot more good in Detroit, Milwaukee, or Cincinnati, where they would create secondary jobs and bolster a larger regional economy.” Not a bad idea, though Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati are, for the record, large metropolitan areas, and the Detroit suburbs do just fine.
Other, less sweeping ideas involve offering carrots for talented and industrious people to move to depopulating communities. In 2015, David Laitin and Marc Jahr wrote in the New York Times, “Let Syrians Settle Detroit.” This was not an entirely novel idea: Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had earlier discussed getting the Obama administration to offer 50,000 visas for high-skilled migrants to come to Detroit. But Snyder’s plan was dubious—how could you force visa recipients to stay in Detroit?—and the Laitin-Jahr idea was impossible because America hasn’t even accepted one-third that number of Syrian refugees since the war began. This type of geographic enticement is often tried on a small scale: In 2016, for example, the Stanford Graduate School of Business offered three students a free ride on the condition they live in the Midwest after graduation.
What’s clear is that corporate America, despite displays of outreach like Mark Zuckerberg’s listening tour and a J.D. Vance–backed venture fund for “flyover startups,” will only do what’s best for itself. That much was evident from Amazon’s public search for its second headquarters: In narrowing its list to 20 cities, it cut all metros with fewer than 1 million people and a good number of big legacy cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore. Amazon isn’t just going to go to St. Louis because what’s “good for America is good for Amazon,” even as Missouri prepared to drop $2.4 billion to accommodate the online giant.
As much now as in 1908, any effort that makes a difference will have to start with the federal government. A provision of the GOP tax bill will create “Opportunity Zones” in distressed regions, offering tax cuts for investments (though the evidence on the efficacy of such programs is not great). The urban theorist Aaron Renn outlines some back-of-the-napkin proposals, like tougher regulation of Silicon Valley firms or a stimulus/bail-out for Midwest legacy costs, from indebted pension funds to corroding pipes. Others have drawn the comparison to the European Union’s so-called cohesion policy, which has for decades funneled money south and east from the continent’s prosperous core, the so-called blue banana that stretches from Manchester, England, to Milan. Or to regional development bodies like the Tennessee Valley Authority.
In any case, the triumph of the coastal cities, as well as the rapid expansion of the Sun Belt sprawl, was not accidental or, in fact, inevitable—they were the results of high-level choices. One of my favorite pieces on the subject is Brian Feldman’s 2016 Washington Monthly story on how mergers hastened the decline of St. Louis by stripping the city of company headquarters. The policies that enabled that process could be revised, or even reversed.
Some of these ideas to revive the heartland seem outlandish, especially in the light of comparatively pedestrian proposals to help people to move to Boston and Seattle. But that’s where a high-profile, respected group like the Country Life Commission could come in. Helping people move is important; we ought to figure out how to help the places they came from, too. Vibrant small cities not only offer a hedge against the health of our big ones—certain as that health seems now—but a number of distinct perks of their own. They’re small enough for regular people to participate in politics and make a mark on civic life; small enough for responsive, local ownership over institutions and infrastructure like banks, broadband, retail, and food production; small enough for short commutes and easy access to nature. Newly populated by immigrants, small cities are no longer the staid, conservative outposts they once were. It’s time for some big ideas about how to make them viable again.
And those efforts should take place before our current metropolitan glory days are upended by hazards unforeseen (war, changing cultural preferences) and foreseen (climate change, automation). After all, as recently as 1980, few would have predicted the resurgence awaiting America’s largest city. At that time, New York was struggling with debt, depopulation, deindustrialization, and a crime rate that would peak with an astonishing 2,245 murders and 147,000 stolen cars in 1990. Even if you take the hard-nosed economist’s view that America’s current population distribution is inefficient, there’s a reason to help the places whose plights seem as dire now as New York’s did then: to prepare ourselves for the moment we might need them. The status quo won’t last. It never does.
Support our journalism
Help us continue covering the news and issues important to you—and get ad-free podcasts and bonus segments, members-only content, and other great benefits.Join Slate Plus