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Aspiration to Migration

Migrants leaving home inspire others left behind to become better educated.
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(Photo: Frontpage/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Frontpage/Shutterstock)

Distilling The Heartland Monitor report, the Atlantic grapples with an ironic finding, "Fewer than half of Americans say they're likely to relocate, even if they think their town is headed in the wrong direction." Why is the finding ironic? Migration scholars would shrug their shoulders. If people bother to move at all (most don't), then the apple likely won't fall far from the tree. Long-distance migration is the exception, not the rule, even in the relatively geographically mobile United States. We move to improve. We don't abandon all expectations and remain vast.

Misery loves company. That idiom explains a lot of geographic immobility. The fear of the unknown trumps known despair:

“What good is that going to do me to leave here? I’d just be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Everybody is having problems with one thing or another.”

Improving place doesn't stop people from leaving. Most people are afraid to leave. Regardless of hometown, a few aspire to bigger and better things. No matter the local policy, there will be brain drain. No matter the local policy, most people will stay put. Policy is a poor predictor of migration.

But migration is a good predictor of policy. Stop relocation. Why would government promote geographic mobility? How to increase the educational attainment of the local workforce and promote economic development:

Ray (2006) develops this idea further and investigates the economic implications of such a culture of poverty in which the poor will accept their destiny. He develops the concept of an aspirations window, which is composed of the people that influence an individual's aspirations. Usually these are the closest peers, such as close family members, friends and even neighbors. If this window is solely composed of other economically and socially disadvantaged people, an individual will be unaspiring because of her unawareness of the possibility of social and economic ascension. Ray (2006) proposes that someone who is aspiring towards a better, attainable life will put a certain amount of eff ort into the realization of this goal, whereas someone who is unaspiring will not. It is important that the aspirations gap, the distance between where an individual sees herself currently and the goal she is aspiring to, must be of a reasonable size, in order to aff ect her behavior. A gap that is too small, as in poor or segregated societies, will lead to frustration, since there is no goal worth pursuing. A gap that is larger than what is reasonably attainable is also unlikely to aff ect an individual's behavior, since she will get fatalistic at the prospect of never being able to attain her goal.

The people who leave, theoretically, create an aspirations window for other townies. Please see my favorite film about the U.S. and globalization, Breaking Away. Such a window isn't an invitation to exodus. It's an inspiration to higher education. Go Cutters.

Theoretically, and now empirically, a place of brain drain will become a place of brain gain. Those who leave will inspire those left behind to stay in school. Without aspiration, there is no migration.