Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Small Town or Big City? Big City.

Small towns may have a lot of charm, but they have very limited economic opportunities, particularly for young people.

Many folks claim that there is nothin' better than country livin'.  And apparently the letter "g" is missing from their keyboards.  But living in the country ain't all it's cracked up to be.  More people live in poverty in rural areas than in urban ones, and there are many good reasons for this.

Before you decide to "ditch the rat race" and head out to the sticks, think about it carefully.   There are a lot of advantages to city life:
1.  Job Opportunities are Better:   It doesn't matter if you are an unskilled worker or a highly trained surgeon, your opportunities in the big city are just greater.   If you are a cook, in a small town, the only place to work is Edwina's Korner Kafe.  In the city, there are hundreds, if not thousands of such jobs.   This means not only are you more likely to get hired, but that if you don't like your job, you can go work somewhere else.

2.  Commutes are Shorter:  Even though the traffic in DC is bad, I was never more than 5-10 miles from where I wanted to go.   At my country house, everything was 20 miles away - or more.  Often far more.

3.  Better Bargains:  If you want to buy a car, there are hundreds of dealers near a big city - you can cross-shop.   But in the Country, there is one car dealer, and he has three cars in stock, all brown.  If you want to buy a used car, there are plenty of people selling their old rides in the big city - for low prices.  In the country, old Clem has his clapped out car for sale for months, if not years, before he will "get his price".

4.  Better Selection:  You want ethnic foods or esoteric parts or unusual kitchen gadgets?  Whatever it is you want, the selection in the big city is better and cheaper than in the country - and you don't have to drive an hour to get it.   Of course, shopping online levels this playing field, somewhat, today.  But you can't mail-order a meal in a Thai restaurant to the middle of nowhere.

5.  Medical Care:  In the big city you can go to a state-of-the-art oncology clinic.  In the country, they have the Bumfooque County Veterinary Clinic and Oncology Center.  Which would you rather go to?  When my Sister was dying of cancer, we went to visit the five-bed hospital that cared for her.   The boasted of having seven hearing specialists on staff - and one oncologist.  She died.

6.  Housing Holds Value More, Easier to Sell:  In major cities (and places like Detroit and Syracuse don't count as major cities, thank you) the value of Real Estate hardly budged during the downturn.   Property values in the greater DC area, Los Angeles, New York, etc. may have dipped slightly, but nothing like the drops in speculative places like Las Vegas or Miami.  And in the country, it can take years, literally, to sell a house, as the number of potential buyers is very, very small.

7.  Cultural Opportunities Are Greater:  In the Country, you might have a local dinner theater or amateur theatrical troupe, or a Broadway show might come to the local theater, with the traveling company.  But it ain't like the big city, where you get shows, concerts, and all sorts of cultural activities.  Libraries are bigger and better stocked.  There are also small theater groups, small bookstores, cafes, and night life that you just don't see in a small town.

8.  Everybody Doesn't Know Your Business:  In the country, my neighbor came by the other day and said, "I see you had company yesterday".  I was a bit taken aback.   "What do you mean?" I said.  "Well," she replied, "I saw a white, 2002 Ford Taurus parked in your driveway from 9:45 AM until 1:15 PM, with a Caucasian couple in their mid-40s getting out, he as was about 6' 1" brown hair...."  You get the idea - you actually have LESS privacy out in the sticks, as there are so few people.   In the big city, you can be more anonymous.

9.  Better Schools, educational opportunities:  While many "inner city" schools are troubled, the suburbs usually have excellent, well-funded schools.  In the boondocks, the small students and small number of classes mean that your kids won't be able to take a lot of more esoteric courses like AP calculus or AP English.  And the teen pregnancy rates in rural schools rival those of inner-city schools.  For adults, educational opportunities are greater as well.   There are six night law schools in the DC area - George Washington, George Mason, Georgetown, UMD-College Park, American, and Catholic University.  I could go to night school in DC much more easily than in a small town or rural area.

10. It's Quieter and Cleaner in the City:  No, really.  We found the country to be noisy, dirty, and dusty.   Since there is less background noise, you tend to notice noises more - chainsaws, hunting rifles, dirt bikes, agricultural equipment, etc.  And there is a lot of these noisy machines, too!   My neighbor decided to buy a "dirt track" race car and test it out in his corn field - a half-mile away.  With no exhaust system other than straight headers, the sound was deafening.  And the dust he raised covered the neighborhood for hours.  Local farmers spread liquid manure on the crops - only after letting it get funky in these nasty ponds.  And this is when they are not spraying herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers on the fields - all of which soak into groundwater, which means your well.   You drink this shit.   And keeping your car clean?  On dirt and gravel country roads?  I could go for weeks without washing my car in the DC area, and since it was garaged, it looked like new.  In the country, the car was soiled the moment I finished washing it.  Clean quiet, country livin' - is just isn't!

Now, this is not to say that country living is never a good thing.  The air can be better (compared to a code red day in L.A.), the views can be great (or not, there IS a lot of farm smells, chemicals, and outright squalor).  But for the most part, living out in the country can be a big disadvantage to you, personally.

But what about the cost of big-city life?  Yes, it can be more expensive to live in a city than in the sticks.   Here in Brunswick, Georgia, you can rent a house for about $700 a month.  In the sticks, even less.   In the DC area, even a modest apartment might set you back more than $1200 a month or more - in a decent neighborhood that is close to things.  But if you don't have to waste 2 hours a day driving all over the place, it might actually be a cost-saver.

And, of course, wages and salaries in the big city are higher - and opportunities are greater.   When I moved from Syracuse in 1987 to Washington, DC, I was shocked that the sales price on my house in Syracuse would barely make a down payment on a place in DC.   It was depressing, at first.   But I worked hard and made more money and, well, did well for myself.

If I had stayed in Syracuse, none of that would have happened.  I would have been laid off from my manufacturing job and struggled to find work - probably looking for months and months for the few jobs that were available, and having to "settle" for what I could get, rather than pick from among multiple offers (as I did in DC).  And starting my own business in the hinterlands would have been much, much harder.

And small, depressed cities like Syracuse (or worse, Utica) are arguably even worse than living in the boondocks - there is little cultural exposure, few jobs, not much in the way of bargains, and a high crime rate to boot.   And unlike the boondocks, no deer hunting.

So why to people live in places like Syracuse?   Or the middle of nowhere?  A lot of folks feel attached to a certain area - it is comfort food to live within a mile or two of your parents, your high school, and all the places you grew up with.  And many folks do this and drive 100 miles to a big city to work, too - thus having the worst of both worlds and a nightmare commute to boot.

I suppose also that it is possible to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, as well.   But for many, this often means being beholden to one employer, client, or the like.   The small-town lawyer who works mainly for the local manufacturer will surely have a one-client practice.   And if the town has one employer, chances are, you work for them, directly or indirectly, and can't afford to piss them off.

If you are young, and starting out, look for job offers in the big city.  When I graduated from college, I had offers from air conditioning and appliance companies with factories out in very rural areas (a new trend in manufacturing in the last 30 years).  While they were not bad jobs, the pay was not great and the areas were very economically and socially depressed.  And if the job didn't work out, well, there was no competing employer in town to go to work for.   You'd have to sell your home at a loss and leave.   And if the factory closes, well, good luck!

And of course, many companies like to locate factories in small towns for this very reason - land is cheap, and people are desperate for work.  And since you are the only game in town, you don't have to worry as much about people quitting.  Good for them, perhaps not as good for you.

We were driving through rural Georgia the other day and saw lots of clapped-out economy cars, with window paint on the back reading "Woo-Hoo!  Class of 2011!".    And I thought about how many of these kids would never leave their impoverished Counties, get some girl (or get) pregnant (if they hadn't already) and settle down to a lifetime of low expectations and limited opportunities.  And this sort of thing is endemic to most rural areas.

We enjoyed our time in Central New York, but opportunities there were limited.  I did not get any business up there at all, of course (there is none) but I did bring a lot of disposable income into the impoverished County I lived in.  Of course, the locals in small towns don't appreciate "outsiders" - even if they are bringing in cash from out of State and hiring people.  When it came time to sell our home, the average time-on-market of 1.5 years scared us to death.  We sold out quickly, by pricing the home attractively, and lost a lot of money.

In Georgia, we are somewhat in the same situation, although we have far better health care here - a major hospital only 10 minutes away and the Mayo Clinic only an hour away, in Florida, of course.  But it still is small-town living, with limited cultural opportunities and no real bargains to be had.   We have to drive to Florida or Hilton head to look at a car or to get a good dish of Indian food.

And job opportunities are scarce, to say the least.  Some manufacturing jobs, some service sector jobs, and that's about it.   For lawyers, it is the usual mix of Personal Injury cases and DUI arrests.  Not a real great place to hang out your shingle.  And yea, the locals don't appreciate outsiders, although again, I am bringing in money from out-of-State and hiring locals.

Down the road, we will probably sell this place and move back to a more major metropolitan area - an area with more job opportunities and more cultural diversions - a place where one can walk to a cafe or grocery store, or drive a short distance to get whatever it is you need.

Country living is fun and all, but it is no place to be young - or old!  And it certainly is no cost-saving alternative.   In reality, it kind of sucks.

(Originally Posted, July 26, 2011.  Edited April 18, 2012)