If Rural Americans Are Being 'Left Behind,' Why Don't They Just Move?

President Trump and Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee want to help "forgotten" farmers. They won't be able to.


All of my grandparents, two from Ireland and two from Italy, emigrated to the United States during the 1910s. The political situations in both countries were not stable, but the reason they came to America was for economic opportunity. If 23andMe is accurate, my ancestors had lived in the same places for centuries and had essentially been bred to be subsistence farmers and near-serfs. Yet my grandparents, all of whom were born in the 1890s, moved the hell out of old Europe the first chance they got. Having visited the two villages in Ireland that my paternal grandparents hailed from, I can only underscore how happy I am that they did. The world is a lot smaller than it was 100 years ago, but the villages of Killybegs and Ougtherard in Ireland haven't changed very much in the past century. Neither has Fragneto Monforte in Italy (my maternal grandparents were from the same town and had an arranged marriage that was ultimately consummated in Connecticut). If you wanted a future, you had to move.

Which brings me to a recent tweet by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) complaining that

The congresswoman is actually talking about a memo and an executive order—remember when Republicans thought E.O.s were bad things?—that pledge "the executive branch will 'use all viable tools' to accelerate the deployment and adoption of affordable and reliable broadband connectivity in rural America." According to the Tennessean:

It goes on to say executive departments "should seek to reduce barriers to capital investment, remove obstacles to broadband services, and more efficiently employ government resources."

"Those towers are going to go up and you're going to have great, great broadband," Trump said, holding up the official order for the audience to see.

Under a separate memo signed by the president — in addition to the executive order — Trump also is requiring U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to develop a plan to support rural broadband deployment.

U.S. Census

The good news is that the moves by Trump apparently come with no money attached (story of his life, right, promising big changes but keeping his hands in his pockets when the check arrives). That's basically how it should be. If the markets are worth serving, the first action should be for government at all levels to get out of the way of investors. If some sort of subsidy in the interest of providing universal service and help is called for, that can and should come later, and the feds already spend a lot on subsidizing phone, mail, and internet service for rural America.

The bad news is that all the broadband in the world isn't going to transform rural America into God's Little Acre any more than a massively subsidized high-speed broadband boondoggle has turned Chattanooga in Blackburn's Tennessee into a bustling hub of activity (the city's population growth since 2000 is actually lower than the state's rate of 15 percent.) Yet both Trump and Blackburn want to portray yesterday's actions as somehow reversing the tide of history. The 1920 Census was the first one in which more people lived in urban areas than rural ones. That trend will not change anytime soon.

"You are forgotten no more," the president told 5,000 members of the American Farm Bureau assembled in Nashville. "We're fighting for our farmers." Blackburn too invokes "farmers" in her tweet and general rhetoric. But only about 1.5 percent of American workers are directly involved in farming, a figure that is projected to stay flat for the foreseeable future. When it comes to the broader category of people living rural vs. urban areas, it turns out that just 19 percent of Americans live in rural areas, compared to 80 percent living in urban ones (which includes suburbs too). Far from being "left behind" or "forgotten," it turns out that rural Americans have about the same household income as their urban counterparts (and a lower cost of living), are more likely to be employed and own their house, and less likely to be poor. Rural folk are indeed less likely to have internet access, but then again, they're also less likely to have cable TV or neighbors within walking distant. I suspect that many of them like it that way, just like they are more likely to live in the state in which they were born.

Which brings me back to my grandparents. They moved thousands of miles away from places that didn't care much about them and offered them no future other than being ground troops or collateral damage in wars. They were really left behind, by history and by elites. Their response was to get up and move to where the jobs and the future were more likely to be. Similarly, Donald Trump's main (anti-)immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, fled his native Santa Monica, California to be educated and employed every bit as far away from his homeland as my grandparents were. The answer to people being "left behind" isn't to bring the future to them (especially through tax dollars, which farmers and rural states soak up at massive rates). It's to make it easier for them to move.

Like my grandparents and Miller, I've moved thousands of miles all over the place in search of better jobs and opportunities (this includes years in rural America, by the way, in Texas and Ohio). The Trump administration, hell-bent on deporting immigrants and even building walls to keep them out, should instead be inspired by international and domestic migrants who go to where the future is and help build it. But instead, Trump and his team, and too many rural legislators, simply pander to the shrinking percentage of Americans who stay on the farm or out in the country while demonizing the very people who are willing to risk so much by pulling up stakes and starting a new life.