Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Cities Without People

What is development? You might imagine investment in infrastructure, an Army Corps of Engineers project. You could point to a new apartment complex or a skyscraper. Others will cite a litany of statics covering job creation and GDP growth. All these things are indicators of the development of people.

The question is: to what end are we resurrecting Michigan? If the goal is to help the residents of Michigan, it would be much cheaper and easier to do so by investing in those individuals, in order to help them move to more successful local economies. Indeed, without investments in the people of Michigan, it's not clear how much a turnaround in the state's fortunes will benefit existing residents. Many have stayed in the state because they love the place, no doubt, but many others have not left because they're unprepared to find success in growth industries elsewhere. Moving the growth industries to their backyard won't change that fact.

Economic development discourse fetishizes place. It is an act of dehumanization, politicians in service to a territory instead of a polity. There is no chicken-or-egg problem. The development of people comes first. At least, they should come first.

Lately, I've been thinking about the tension between amassing social capital and increasing geographic mobility. The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but that's the dominant framework. The zero-sum game:

For a sending country, migration and the resulting remittances lead to increased incomes and poverty reduction, improve health and educational outcomes, and promote productivity and access to finance. Although individual variation exists, the economic impact is primarily and substantially positive. Yet, these gains come at a substantial social cost to the migrants and their families as migration may lead to eroded family structures, children losing parental care, and weaker safety nets.

Individual economic gains paid for with social costs. That's at the international scale and there are benefits for the places that export talent. At the national or local scale, we are missing a big part (half) of the equation:

Young people have and always will leave our communities. In fact, we want them to. We want them to go off and acquire new experiences. We want them to stretch the boundaries of their education.

But we also want them to stay connected. Sometimes that means returning to raise their families. At other times, it means living elsewhere but still giving back in ways like Tom does.

When I think of Tom and his connection to Miner County, I think of him as being “rooted in place.” Those roots took hold while growing up in Miner County. They’ve enabled him to lead an incredibly productive life outside of Miner County. And they are the same roots that keep bringing him back.

How we stem the tide of youth outmigration is worthy of discussion in rural places. But a more important question for rural community leaders to ask might be, “How do we help our young people grow the roots that enable them to live a life filled with accomplishments (wherever that may be) AND remain connected to the place of their birth?”

It seems to me that rural communities are pretty good at the former. And it is time that we get better at the latter.

Because we don't know how to foster deeper connectivity, we hinder geographic mobility. We stand in the way of development. The trick is to amass social capital while increasing geographic mobility. The two can work in concert. Only conventional paradigms of economic developing are holding us back.

1 comment:

Luke Lea said...

If an undeveloped country loses its best human capital through immigration, how does that lead to long-term prosperity? When the smartest, most ambitious, energetic poor Mexicans move to the U.S., they send back remittances, yes, but what about the loss of their talent, drive, etc. to the long-term development of Mexico's domestic economy. I question whether emigration from poor countries to rich ones helps the bulk of the population left behind.