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Is America Experiencing a Migration Crisis?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Andy Plumlee
June 16, 2017

America is a nation of migrants. Even before there was a United States, this land’s inhabitants were migratory. Migration has done more to create demographic shifts in America than any other contributing factor, including immigration. Every chapter of American history begins or ends with migration. Manifest destiny, Oregon Trail, Sooners, the Dust Bowl and the Great Migration (1910-1970) are just a few examples of America’s migratory practices. This is not just a trait of European settlers and their desire to colonize a wild new land. Indigenous tribes migrated over vast swaths of the country for hundreds of years before the first settlers arrived on their eastern shores.

Has America abandoned its migratory ways and if so why? Did the New Deal, born out of the Great Depression, dampen our migratory spirit? Is the state versus nation debate to blame? Has the rise of technology and globalization made migration obsolete? America faces many challenges today; declining education quality, widening wage and skills gaps, decreases in purchasing power, increases in poverty and a crumbling infrastructure. These problems can be attributed to 2 overlooked factors:

  1. Who migrates and why has changed and;
  2. Policies and programs designed to support migration have had unintended consequences.

The American Lifestyle

migrantPast generations moved out to move up. People migrated west in search of better lives. Some migrated to make their fortunes in the hills of California, the green valleys of Oregon, the shipyards of San Francisco and the oil fields of Oklahoma. Mormons migrated to escape religious discrimination. African Americans from the rural south migrated to the west coast in search of work and to escape the racial discrimination of a post-Civil War South. Who migrated and why changed when American companies began to outsource factory jobs. This new form of migration known as white flight had devastating effects on the country and changed the demographic of Urban America. White flight gave rise to the modern American suburb and it completely changed the way we approached issues of transportation.

Cities such as Detroit and Los Angeles have long been intertwined with America’s migration patterns. Workers migrated into these cities in search of factory work in the early and mid-1900’s. When these jobs were outsourced people migrated out of these cities in large numbers. This is not surprising — what is surprising is the demographic makeup of those who migrated out. For the first time in America’s history the wealthy class, not the poor, migrated. White flight decimated communities, contributed to increases in poverty, violence and drug use in the communities they left behind and increases in property value and business development where they chose to settle.

It would be irresponsible not to point out that gentrification is often the result of this form of migration, those without financial means are forced out of their communities by those seeking to capture the financial wealth that results from an injection of new resources into a community. Policy makers must consider this when creating community development programs. The second reason migration patterns have changed in America is the policies and programs we have enacted.

Unintended Consequences

The Federal Aid Highway act of 1956 was supposed to reduce congestion into cities and reduce the prevalence of unsafe roadways. Instead it completely changed the way we look at public transportation, paved the way for the rise of industrial farming and laid the groundwork for globalized manufacturing. Maybe the worst unintended consequence of the highway act is the proliferation of superstores responsible for the financial ruin of hundreds if not thousands of small communities across the country. Thanks to the highway act and other polices enacted over the last 60 years, when people leave, so do the resources necessary to sustain the community. To counter this impact, American social welfare programs should be considered when discussing the country’s migratory patterns.

Social welfare programs are a critical component of reestablishing migration as a positive way to effect demographic change. These programs are valuable and needed to sustain many American lives in the presence of declining employment opportunities. In their current state, these programs stifle migratory behavior. This is due to the way these programs are administered. Making these programs national would allow individuals to pursue employment opportunities without having to worry about meeting their basic needs when they move.

Relocation is a costly and stressful experience. Businesses and job seekers both would prefer to find a local arrangement but doing so is becoming more difficult in today’s changing business landscape. Allowing lower income job seekers to keep their benefits when they move might help make moving a more favorable option. If the goal is to get Americans back to work, we need to help workers move to where employment opportunities exist. It is not an unprecedented idea in American history, land grants of past generations helped many poor Americans realize the dreams of a better life. British politician Jeremy Corbyn once said “It is time we recognized the huge contribution that migration has made to the economic growth of this country.” Isn’t it time we in America do the same?

Author: Andy Plumlee is sustainably minded professional focused on improving social sustainability with locally based data collection and analysis. He is currently working on building a dynamic community populated database designed to help local government identify gaps in services provided. Andy holds a Master’s in business and public administration. He can be reached at [email protected] or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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