If You Ignore Enough

As I read Sarah Jones’s article at The New Republic, “Telling Rural People To Move Won’t Solve Poverty”:

It sounds easy enough: If you can’t find a job where you are, move. But experts tell me that this refrain is a gross oversimplification. The problems that plague rural America did not originate there, and their consequences do not end where cities begin. The roots of rural poverty in fact say quite a bit about the nature of poverty generally—both why it happens and what can be done to prevent it.

“Just like there’s not one urban America, there’s not one rural America either,” explained Kenneth Johnson, who teaches demography and sociology at the University of New Hampshire. Some rural areas shrink with disproportionate speed; others, however, are actually experiencing net in-migration. The differences frequently map onto differences in regional industries. “For example, the parts of rural America that tend to receive net in-migration most of the time are those that are just beyond the edges of the urban areas,” Johnson said. “And then the other ones that often will receive migration gains are recreational or retirement kind of amenity areas.”

it came to me that she’s ignoring the enormous subsidies that cities receive. Consider just one city: Washington, DC. Not only are the headquarters of every federal agency located there, the lobbyists, law firms, think tanks, and other organizations that are creatures of those federal agencies are, too, and they provide an enormous boost to the local economy. Housing prices aren’t high in the DC metro area because of the clement climate and beautiful scenery. It’s because there’s money there.

Every major city benefits from a vast array of federal, state, and local government agencies and the financial benefits they bring. It’s no accident that the first counties to recover after the Great Recession were those where seats of government were located.

It doesn’t have to be that way at least not any more and large private sector organizations increasingly tend not to operate that way. On a daily basis I meet with people on three continents and a dozen cities and it doesn’t matter whether I’m sitting in a cubicle in the office or at my dining room table. I’ve sometimes thought of setting up a blue screen in my dining room, projecting a palatial office onto it, and turning the video on for more meetings.

As more Americans become urban dwellers the temptation to design programs that work best in urban settings becomes irresistible and the whole thing becomes one enormous feedback loop.

Here’s my (modest) proposal for reducing rural poverty. Relocate federal agencies. Moving HHS’s headquarters from the Hubert Humphrey Building to Yazoo City would unquestionably boost the local economy there. And would probably be a lot cheaper to operate.

17 comments… add one
  • Gustopher Link

    It’s not just government jobs that are concentrated, but whole industries.

    All the high paying jobs have concentrated into the cities. There’s no reason stock traders need to be in NYC rather than in Appalachia, but you’re not seeing Goldman Sachs taking advantage of the cheaper real estate and the cheaper workforce. Software companies clustered in SF and Seattle, while Idaho continues to relentlessly exist.

    Spreading out the government jobs more would run into the problem of finding qualified people in Yazoo City. Do people want to be in Yazoo?

  • you’re not seeing Goldman Sachs taking advantage of the cheaper real estate and the cheaper workforce. Software companies clustered in SF and Seattle, while Idaho continues to relentlessly exist.

    Much of that is due to government subsidies. They’re so deeply embedded people hardly think of them any more. The reason that software companies are “clustered in SF and Seattle” is, ultimately, WWII defense contracts. Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley because of contracts to make vacuum tubes.

    “Qualified people” tends to be one of those circular things. Are you proposing that government jobs be distributed based on where prospective government employees want to be?

  • Andy Link


    Remote work is becoming a lot more common, especially for cities with terrible commutes. I think this will become more mainstream over time and will make family mobility a lot easier for white-collar workers at least. As with many things, this may be an advantage that will be exclusive to workers in the top half of the income distribution.

  • Andy Link

    Relocating federal agencies would also clear out a lot of the federal workforce, especially at the upper echelons. That would have good and bad effects.

    Also, this is happening on some places. For example, several large intelligence agency activities moved from the DC area to Charlottesville, VA.

    Another idea is to tie relocations to BRAC – if there’s another round of base closures (and there probably should be), the local economic impact could be offset by moving other federal activities there.

  • I think this will become more mainstream over time

    It’s already mainstream. Just not in government which, as I’ve noted before, is mired in the 70s if not the 50s.

  • Gustopher Link

    Seattle is a tech hub less because of government subsidies, and more because of Amazon (and before them, to a lesser extent, Microsoft). Amazon hires an enormous number of software engineers, and pays to relocate them here, and then fires them or burns them out in two years. A large number of companies spring up to hire that available talent. (Even those outright fired by Amazon are generally pretty good)

    Amazon chose Seattle because of available university hires, and it being a small enough state that they would be able to ship things to most of the country without collecting sales tax. It then outgrew the city and became the massive distortion that it is now. There was no real reason it couldn’t have been in Minnesota.

    Also, Amazon could have people working remotely, but that’s just not as effective. Face to face helps a lot.

  • Gustopher Link

    “Are you proposing that government jobs be distributed based on where prospective government employees want to be?”

    Are you proposing distributing government jobs to places where there isn’t a skilled workforce?

    There has to be a balance.

  • steve Link

    As I recall, too tired to go look again, when you look at total govt spending (including subsidy spending) vs taxes collected, it is actually rural areas which are more heavily subsidized. DC is a special case. I don’t really see this happening a lot. I hear that the theater and the sushi in Yazoo city isn’t that good. Both (small) hospitals are poorly rated. (It does have a federal corrections facility.) Dare we look at the schools?

    I can see some growth in medium sized cities that are fairly close to major cities, within 50 miles. Beyond that? No so much. Come with me up to coal country and see what kind of communities these companies would bring their people into. (To come clean, since I am heavily involved in recruiting for my corporation and for our network, I regularly experience the joys of trying to convince people to work in more rural areas. Even worse, we have taken over hospitals in rural areas and the legacy staff I have to deal with in these places are often awful.)


  • Gustopher, you are aware, aren’t you, that Seattle had an existence before Microsoft? Seattle was a center for aerospace and defense when Bill Gates was still wearing triangular pants. Seattle exists because of its port, the port attracted military spending, the military spending (and port) made it more than a village and that’s why Bill Gates was there in the first place. The notion that Amazon is in Seattle for any reason other than Microsoft is simply bizarre. I could name ten cities right off the top of my head that have better universities than Seattle. Just start naming cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston. But none of them have Microsoft and Microsoft is in Seattle because there were more than a few people in Seattle and there were more than a few people in Seattle because of the defense contracts.


    It’s simpler than that. We’ve been pouring money into the big cities, particularly New York, by the trillion for the last couple of decades. Discretionary spending is small potatoes today.

  • steve Link

    Dave- We have been pouring money into rural areas also. Lots of writing on this, and there is a bit of disagreement, but if you include spending by states it generally favors rural areas. (Even when you limit it to federal spending, those claiming it favors urban areas show that it is by a small percentage.)


  • The poorest places in the country are in rural areas. If you’re concerned about poverty in the U. S., your effort should be focused on rural areas. If you’re not worried about poverty, fine.

  • Andy Link


    The vast majority of federal spending goes to urban areas – even in states that are largely rural.

    For entitlements, more people live in urban areas so, as a general rule, urban areas will get more of that spending.

    For grants, loans, contracts and other assistance, go to usaspending.gov and play around. It goes down to the county and even zip-code level but an important caveat is that money given to the state government shows as going to the state capital. The site doesn’t show where in the state that money is actually spent.

    For Federal employees, eyeonwashington.com shows that at the Congressional district & county level. Check any state and in most cases federal employees (and retirees) are in are near the urbanized areas.


    Numbers for military personnel are harder to come by at the county level, but it’s easy to see where the bulk are based on where the major bases are. Here I think one could make a case that subsidies might go to more rural areas.

  • steve Link

    Andy- On a per capita basis is what I am talking about. If we had equal federal spending in rural and urban areas the rural people would all be wealthy.


  • You’re changing the subject, steve. The real grinding poverty is rural poverty. If you want to do something about that kind of poverty, policies need to be targeted for rural areas and that means you’ll need to spend more per capita in rural areas. If people aren’t concerned about real grinding poverty, they shouldn’t complain about poverty.

    This is like that old joke about the drunk searching under the lamppost for his lost car keys because the light was better there. You’ve got to deal with poverty where it is not where the most people are or it’s convenient to deal with or the caseworkers want to live there.

  • steve Link

    Hmm, you might be correct. Having seen both I find it hard to judge which is actually worse, but I can see how you can make a case for rural being worse. But, that is with per capita spending of federal monies being about equal in both areas. You are, I think, making the case that we need to spend disproportionately more in rural areas. I find this just a bit odd since you also don’t think we should spend so much on rural infrastructure since so few people use it.

    Personally, I don’t think we know how to fix those areas with really hard core engrained poverty, be it rural or urban.


  • I can see how you can make a case for rural being worse.

    I’ve been to Indian reservations. I’ve been to the Mississippi Delta and some of the Carolina Tidewater and Appalachia. I’ve also seen multiple urban inner cities. Nothing in the U. S. really compares with the sort of Third World poverty on Indian reservations and the Mississippi Delta.

    you also don’t think we should spend so much on rural infrastructure since so few people use it.

    I don’t have a problem with spending money on infrastructure that will actually be used. I do have a problem spending money repairing roads and bridges that are no longer in use because the interstate made their use obsolete. The CEs’ report, usually used to evaluate the state of U. S. infrastructure, doesn’t distinguish between the two. But that’s what happens when you narrow your view of “infrastructure” to roads and bridges and don’t consider projects critically.

    And, as I’ve said, considering how little discretionary spending there is these days, it’s better to disperse federal offices to improve rural growth organically than it is to build highways no one will use.

  • Andy Link


    There are no more recent data, but even on a per capita basis urban areas get more. However, urban areas pay more in taxes, so on a per capita basis when looking at taxes paid minus benefits received, rural people do get more on net.


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