Your State Loves You, but it Might Want You to Leave

desolation

This post isn’t for the nurses and engineers or those lucky few among us in high demand positions who can basically land a job whenever and wherever they want. As admirable and necessary as those professions are, the world needs people from all walks of life and with all kinds of abilities and skillsets. From carpenters and artists to truck drivers and social workers, this post is for you. 

As someone who grew up in the wake of the post-industrial Midwest, I’ve had my fair share of struggle. I spent over half of my childhood in poverty and the majority of my twenties in crummy jobs and in even crummier cities. To be fair, there is a lot of good in the Midwest, and this post isn’t intended to rip on it. God knows it doesn’t need any more criticism. In fact, I’ve spent all of my professional career in the community development field, a lot of which was focused on trying to make those places better, and many of my closest friends are still working in those areas with the same goals. Things are getting better there and I commend the people who enjoy being there and working to improve it. 

The major problem, in my mind, is that economies are far more elastic than the built environment. By this I mean that when times are good and a place is growing economically, humans tend to build things. We build roads, schools, housing, and infrastructure. All of this is financed by good jobs, whether through the taxes we pay or through the loans we take out to pay for them. We pay our mortgages and the government pays back the bonds it used to build the bridges. The problem occurs when the jobs evaporate. When the jobs disappear, so does the funding to pay for things to be built or maintained. People move away out of necessity and this creates a lack of demand for housing which in turn reduces their value and thus the taxes taken in by government. Things fall apart. 

There is opportunity in the ashes. Cost of living generally goes down in these situations. If you’re lucky enough to have a good paying job, you can carve out a pretty good existence depending on where you’re willing to live and what you’re willing to endure. For instance, before moving to Portland I nearly bought a house in Michigan for $30,000. It needed a lot of work, but it was essentially habitable. The problem was that it wasn’t truly a place I wanted to live. I dreamed about moving away, but I couldn’t land a job elsewhere. I had resigned myself to making the best of a shitty situation. I was trying to look on the bright side. I dreamed up schemes where my cost of living was so low that I could basically go anywhere I wanted on vacations to help assuage the pain of being in a deep depression about where I lived. But that’s not what happened. There I was at 33 years old and hating my life primarily because of where I lived.  

It may be helpful for you to know that there’s a lot of literature out there in the urban planning and community development worlds, both from the popular periodicals (CityLab/The Atlantic) and in the academic journals that argue that people are choosing the places they’d like to live prior to even landing a job. The academics are saying that people are choosing where to live based on certain places having the amenities people want and need to enjoy a fulfilling life. A nightlife, recreational opportunities, cool places to buy a coffee, etc.

Along those lines, here in Portland the joke has been that young people move here to retire. And what people in the Midwest are trying to do is improve their cities so that people will move there, hopefully to create jobs, start families, buy houses and cars, and contribute to the betterment of the economy. Some of them call it “placemaking”. That term may come and go out of fashion, but another name will take its place that essentially means the same thing. The bottom line is that a lot of smart people have looked at successful places and are trying to recreate them to a certain extent. It’s become formulaic in that people believe the form of the built environment—the shape and structure of buildings and the public realm—influence people’s psychology enough to want to be there. It’s like feng shui for cities in a way. 

There’s a lot of truth to it, even anecdotally. Think about it: who wants to live in a slum or spend time in a desolate, ugly downtown? Not many people I know, unless they’re really into taking photos of post-apocalyptic economic collapse. With placemaking, we start to see vestiges of life in once lifeless places. Coffee shops and bars open up, sporadically at first. Community development funding helps building owners tear down the crappy 1970s facades to expose the ornamental brick underneath. Streetscapes are remade and bike lanes are installed. Trees are planted and warehouses are converted to lofts. Streets are rolled back and burned out houses are demolished. All admirable things. 

But the economic output just doesn’t increase the way it once did. At least not for awhile. Sure, the small businesses that employ an enormous amount of people come in, but they don’t bring in the same kind of prosperity that a Cadillac plant once did. What’s going on is that these places are in a slow transition period and have a lot more work to do. Those government officials will create slogans and brand their communities to try and make them seem cool and entice people to move there or to stay there. Hell, many of them are fabulously cool. But that doesn’t mean you should stay there. 

What I think goes unnoticed are the masses of people who are woefully underemployed. I’m talking about the folks with degrees working in restaurants because they can’t find anything else and the construction workers who get laid off every single year. The auto worker who is technically employed at a temp agency and gets half the wages of the regular employee. Like myself before I landed my first professional job at 29, there are a lot of factors to consider when thinking about what’s keeping these people in those situations. For some, it’s proximity to family. For others, they’ve never known anything else. For me, it was the fear of taking the leap without knowing if anywhere else would be different in terms of getting a job. I was fearful of leaving without having landed a position to have the most basic sense of security. 

How does this post have anything to do with minimalism and intentional living? Well, I’m writing this to let you know that you’re not alone if you’re struggling with being from a place that makes you feel like it doesn’t want you. Maybe you don’t see it on the surface, but you feel it when you can’t seem to get ahead in life no matter how hard you try. There may be structural issues at play beyond your control and the only way to correct it is to be as flexible as the economy that left you stranded. 

Of course there is personal responsibility at play as well. Education is a major factor in economic mobility. But there are places right now where there are shortages of workers. Maybe you should ask yourself what is holding you back? For me, it was fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of failure. But once I made the leap, so many things seemed to fall into place. My only regret is that I didn’t try it sooner. I took the safe route and wasted away years of my life in a place that made me feel like it didn’t want me. 

If there’s anything I’ve learned on my journey toward a more intentional lifestyle, it’s that if I would have refocused my priorities early on, I could have saved myself a lot of headaches. I think if I could do it all over again, and if I'd have known then what I know now, I would’ve pared down my possessions to the bare minimum, worked my ass off to pay off all of my debt, and then I would have just leapt for it. I would’ve lived out of my car if I had to and just gone for it. Maybe applied for some temp jobs or worked for Uber or whatever. 

I want you to know that if you did the same, you’d probably be okay. Honestly, you’ll probably be better than okay. The worst that could happen is that you have to go back to where you’re from. Your state loves you and it’s giving you away. If you have to go back, maybe it's meant to be.