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The Geography of Poverty and Migration

The poor, whom we expect to move in order to improve, tend to stay put.
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Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: nitram242/Flickr)

Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: nitram242/Flickr)

Long-distance migrants share two characteristics: means and motivation. Concerning perception, most people see destitute and desperate. Jason Schachter toiling for the U.S. Census Bureau back in 2001 (PDF):

Among long-distance movers, work-related reasons were more important for the nonpoor (33 percent) than the poor (23 percent), while family reasons were more important for the poor (32 percent) than the nonpoor (26 percent). Most of the variation in family-related reasons between the poor and nonpoor came from the poor citing other family reasons for their move. The largest share of the work-related variation came from the nonpoor moving for a new job (23 percent versus 13 percent). In contrast, 5 percent of the poor moved to look for work or because of a lost job, compared with just 2 percent of the nonpoor.

Long-distance migrants move for jobs, more so among the nonpoor. Short-distance migrants move for housing. Quick and dirty, "lower education and income groups [are] more likely to move for family reasons and less likely to move for work-related reasons than higher education and income groups." The poor, whom we expect to move in order to improve, tend to stay put.

Chico Harlan scratching his head in App-uh-latch-uh:

Miners, modestly educated but accustomed to high pay, are among the hardest group of American workers to retrain. They also tend to challenge one of the tenets of economics logic — that people will go elsewhere to find jobs. Even though the economy is growing in northern parts of West Virginia, driven by a natural gas boom, those in the geographically isolated southern parts have shown a tendency to stay put, even if it means sliding toward poverty.

“This is where you grew up; you can fish, you can hunt. Land is cheap. Chances are your grandfather owned that property,” said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “So leaving that to go somewhere else where you’ll be stuck in Toledo doesn’t sound very attractive.”

Emphasis added. The Census Bureau told us what to expect. No one was listening. When times get tough, those with means (better education and income) get going. Rich Exner covers short-distance migration patterns in Cleveland:

Cleveland is typical of some industrial towns that grew sharply during the early 1900s. It's surrounded by a lot of suburbs. Older sections of any metro area tend to be where poverty is concentrated. Newer big cities, with fewer suburbs, tend to have more economic diversity.

So when Clevelanders do better economically and decide to move, they often move to the suburbs. That means Cleveland is left with a smaller population with a higher percentage of people in poverty.

If you want to understand racial segregation and income inequality, then you better bone up on the above demography. Those with means moved from the urban core to the suburbs, as long as redlining didn't stop them. Better housing, as the Census spells out, draws in people from other parts of the region. Those who stay in the old urban gateway for the Great Migration tend to be poor, hence the stubborn persistence of poverty.

The geography of poverty and migration in rural Appalachia and urban Rust Belt has a contrasting racial completion. That skin-deep distinction belies a common experience. "[T]hose in the geographically isolated ... parts have shown a tendency to stay put, even if it means sliding toward poverty."