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University of Wisconsin–Madison

What Migration Means for America

“The people who are able to leave very often do so,” explained Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance on leaving his hometown of Middletown, Ohio.

When discussing migration, one is forced to consider the reasons that people decide to leave and the costs that come with doing so. Framed by the greater migration of Appalachian residents to cities in the Rust Belt following World War II, author J.D. Vance chronicles his grandparents’ move from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, and the adjustments they had to make in their lives away from the community in which they grew up. Vance himself left his hometown as an adult, first serving in the Marine Corps, then moving in order to further his education at Ohio State University and Yale, finally settling in San Francisco for career opportunities.

In March of this year, Vance announced in a New York Times Op-Ed that he and his family would be moving to Columbus, Ohio to found a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting the opioid epidemic that has spread across the United States. In explaining this decision, he mentions that geographic mobility in the United States has been declining over the last thirty years. The people who move to those areas are those who have the means and skills to be successful in areas of the country where economic opportunities abound, leaving behind struggling towns.

CC Image courtesy of David Mark on Pixabay. Columbus, Ohio.

Vance hopes that by moving back to Ohio, he can help counter this trend sometimes referred to as the “brain drain”. He writes about another friend, Ami Vitori Kimener, who is in a similar transition. Kimener moved back to Middletown, Ohio, after graduating from Georgetown University, to start a business and work to revitalize the city. Yet Vance also states that “not every town can or should be saved”, alluding to the greater debate over what should be done about the towns around the country with few economic prospects and the people who still live in them.

Author J.D. Vance. CC Image Courtesy of the J.D. Vance website.

An article published in The Atlantic last week by Brian Alexander engages with this debate from the perspective of those people who do still live in those areas. Alexander, like Vance, writes about the decrease in internal migration in the United States while acknowledging that researchers are not sure what this means for the future of the country. More importantly, he examines why people in “dying towns” simply do not pick up and move to an area with more opportunity.

Author Brian Alexander. CC Image Courtesy of the Brian Alexander Website.

There are various reasons and factors that go into peoples’ calculations about where to live, some external and some internal. Any solution to this issue will likely complex and nuanced, and studying these factors is an important first step in that direction.

Morgan Sederburg
Student Assistant, Go Big Read Office