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Friday, June 30, 2017

The Staying Put Trap


A long time ago I was on a panel at a conference. We had all presented different aspects of the media landscape and the moderator said he was going to hit us with some big questions. Most were pretty vanilla but, at the end, he asked each of us to discuss briefly a strength of the America economy. We all had to think fast and the early answers were obvious things such as our relatively free market, American entrepreneurship, and rule of law. The guy next to me seemed flustered but blurted out that America had a relatively abundant water supply. People laughed but it was a pretty thoughtful response. I came last and pulled a gem out of my derriere--America, I said, had a secret strength in its economy--mobility. A few people rolled their eyes but afterward some attendees stopped me and said that they had never thought of it before.

If you look at the last 50 years, American unemployment rates have often been far below our friends in Europe as we Americans tended to be willing to move where the jobs were. I vividly remember talking to a clergyman about a small city in Italy where many families had lived in apartments in the same building for up to six generations. He said, “How wonderful” while I, the crass capitalist, said there had to be some talented people who never reached their potential by staying put for 150 years. The European Union has changed some of this but there still appears a reluctance to cross borders even if it is to another province.

Looking clearly at the data, it appears that American mobility is stalled somewhat. To me, there appears to be a few reasons. The biggest is two-career couples. If one is offered a job, a tough decision often has to be made. Can the other member of the couple find a similar job in their new city? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. What about child care? In your hometown, in-laws and grandparents often cheerfully provide it for free. That strong safety net disappears.

Some columnists on both the left and right have often questioned why more blue collar people in depressed areas don’t simply pack up and leave and go to boom towns. I read several such rants during the shale oil boom in North Dakota a few years back. Well, if you are struggling, is it easy to rent a truck, and conjure up money for a security deposit plus rent if you have no job? Week to week rentals are very expensive and you likely know no one in the boomtown. So many simply stay put.

A final issue that I observed that hinders mobility may not be obvious superficially. It is simply the American dream of home ownership. This is a deeply embedded part of the American culture. Yet, there is a problem. Owning a home often makes it damn hard to move. Back in October, 2010, Media Realism published a four part series entitled “Mid-Sized Malaise.” In part two, a talented young creative told me that he was underwater on his mortgage and felt as if he were an indentured servant at his shop where raises were nowhere in sight and there was literally no other place to work in town. I hunted him up and found that he is still there. He said, “I am not underwater on the mortgage after seven more years of payments. The problem is that my market (a mid-western city that will remain anonymous) has never really bounced back from the great recession. So, it could take me a year to sell our place. I cannot afford to go to a new market and pay rent and also continue to pay the mortgage on my home here. Also, my wife might have a hard time getting a similar job in a new market. I do a bit of freelance for people 1000 miles away but I may be stuck here forever.”

Separately, an agency chief whom I have known for decades tells me that he wanted to hire a very promising writer currently toiling in a depressed market in a flyover state. The guy was not too demanding on salary but asked that my friend buy his house as part of his employment package. My friend said that he was not in the real estate business and the deal fell through.

Some agencies hire the footloose millennials who can attach their possessions to a U-haul and arrive quickly. If things do not work out, they can leave their apartment and move on. Not so with homeowners.

So a surprising number of people are caught in a difficult situation. The downscale may not have the resources to move or a support team when they arrive at a new venue. Even potential agency stars are hamstrung by being caught in homes that are difficult to sell.

Were I on a similar panel today, I would certainly think twice about naming mobility as a secret strength of the American economy.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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