Tuesday, November 29, 2011

States and Regions

Culturally and economically, Buffalo is closer to Toledo than to New York City. But Buffalo is part of New York State, and its legal and political realities reflect that.

New York is an extreme case of a state in which a single city overshadows the rest of the state. It’s easy to come up with other examples, of course: Atlanta isn’t typical of Georgia, Baltimore isn’t typical of Maryland, and so on. (New Jersey has the unique distinction of being dominated by not one, but two, cities outside of its own borders.)

I was reminded of these intrastate imbalances in looking at Richard Florida’s recent series in The Atlantic about interstate mobility. Florida compares rates of native birth in various states, and notes correlations to economic class, physical health, religiosity, and the like. Broadly, folks in states with relatively little in-migration tend to be more religious, more extroverted, and less open to new experiences than folks in states with higher interstate migration rates. In a sense, he’s mapping the creative class/blue collar divide onto the states.

I have to concede his point as he made it, yet it doesn’t describe much of my daily reality. That’s because I’ve spent much of my life living in regions that tend to get overshadowed by major cities. Politically and economically, they get treated as afterthoughts.

When you’re in the Uticas or Rockfords of the world, it’s easy to regard statewide policies as stalking horses for the agendas of, say, the Manhattans or Chicagos. (I’d guess that many of my non-Northeastern readers would have an easier time identifying the mayor of New York City than the governor of New York State.) That gets even more true as the major metros experience significant in-migration, and the outlying cities don’t. Over time, it’s easy for policymakers -- both offficial and unofficial -- to conflate the large cities with the state as a whole. But what makes sense for Seattle may not make sense for Richland.

That can have real consequences for the overshadowed regions. Just because insurance is huge in Omaha doesn’t mean that it can be duplicated in Hastings, which presumably has needs of its own. Whatever efficiencies centralization might promise could easily be overwhelmed by deadweight losses caused by blindness to local conditions.

Even the folkways are different. I’ve found that it’s harder to break into social circles in areas with lots of people who were born there than it is in higher-turnover areas, just because people in the more settled areas already have what they need. They already have well-developed networks, so they aren’t particularly looking to expand them. That’s not meanness, even if it can sometimes come off as chilly; it’s just satiety.

Politics in the more settled areas tend to be much harder to shift, too. This year’s battles carry echoes of last year’s, which, in turn, were proxies for battles fought a decade before. When the same ruts get run year after year, they get pretty deep and hard to break. That can look like stabilty, or it can look like stasis. Worse, a sort of provincial chauvinism can arise as a defensive response to feeling overshadowed. That kind of insularity -- even if well-intended -- is actually a handmaiden of decline. Breaking that pattern is no small feat, but it’s a necessity if the overshadowed regions hope to rise anew.

Community colleges straddle an awkward divide in places like these. Most community college students intend to stay local after graduation and, in fact, most do. But in the afterthought regions, opportunities tend to be pretty limited; often the only way to move up is to move out. The afterthought regions often export their most talented young people to the metro cities, simply because the metros can offer things other places can’t. That “springboard” function serves a real social purpose, and I’m glad for it, but it can lead to some awkward political moments locally.

Statewide policies written with a single dominant metro in mind can do real damage to the rest of the state. Rochester isn’t just a smaller version of New York City; it’s an entirely different animal. It would be lovely if state lines matched economic and social lines, but they don’t. (Practically, they couldn’t; the economic and social lines move too often.) As long as they don’t, I just hope that the lure of economies of scale won’t tempt states to mistake single -- albeit important -- parts for the whole. Some of us live out here.