Post-Migration America? Staying in Place in Dire Times

Stephen Franklin

The foundation of a new home is built next to abandoned houses in Detroit, in what was once a thriving middle-class area.

The black-plate people” were born more than 30 years ago, the last time the U.S. economy was almost this bad. Members of the group were from northern states like Michigan, which had dark-colored license plates.

Black-plate people” wasn’t a moniker carried with honor. It was slapped on people by folks in the Sun Belt states, where northern economic nomads suddenly showed up in the 1970s because the auto industry back home had virtually shut down.

With unemployment soaring to double digits level in auto, steel and tire towns of the Midwest, the Reagan administration said it was basically going to let laid-off workers go wherever the work was. That, it explained, was the American way.

Is that the American way? When you lose your job, you move on, right? You find a new life. It works out, doesn’t it?

I’m not so sure, and that’s why I’m not as upset as others by a recent report showing that mobility for most of the last decade was the lowest since the end of World War II.

The new report by demographer William H. Frey for the Brookings Institution was no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the economic plagues that have swirled across the country. (The report, titled The Great American
Migration Slowdown,” is available here.)

People were reluctant to move because their houses suddenly had lost their values. Or they had lost their houses and had nothing to go on the road with.

They didn’t have the credit anymore to risk on starting over because their salaries were sliding downward or stuck in place for much of the last decade. Or they fell behind and got suckered into the explosion of predatory lending that took place in the last decade.

They didn’t go off in search of work elsewhere because there were no jobs to be found.

And since more wives have gone to work to just keep families’ economies afloat, there suddenly was a hesitancy to give up a guaranteed second income.

What’s the price for surrendering our wanderlust?

Some say it will just let problems fester in place, sap innovation, destroy risk-taking. But I think it’s the chance to undo a dysfunctional myth.

Rather than abandoning North Carolina mill towns because the work has moved to China or letting Detroit and all of the rust-belt wither away, here’s the chance to help people in the places where they have lived their lives.

Here is the challenge to come up with training and businesses that will replace the steel mills or the auto mills and all of the thousands of workplaces that were swept away in the Great Recession.

While the migration slowdown may sound new and quaint in Florida, the constant roar of the moving van didn’t disappear in the last decades in states like Illinois, Ohio and Michigan – states that consistently were among the leaders in population loses, according to a more recent report by Frey.

In the 30s, people left Oklahoma for a new life in California, picking crops and living in hovels along the way. And many were forever stamped by their forced migration.

In the 80s, the black-plate people I knew in Michigan wandered off in search of good jobs. Some found them. But many just settled for whatever came their way.

Maybe we’ll learn this time that there’s nothing wrong with staying home and saving what we have. That is, if we have polices that will keep us in place.

Stephen Franklin is a former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.

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