Geographic Inequality

Steve’s folks called with good news over the weekend. His mom’s brother and wife are going to retire just 20 minutes away from them in North Carolina. Steve’s folks retired to the area from Cleveland about ten years ago, and we’ve always been worried about their distance from extended family. Now, they have people to spend holidays with, when they can’t make the trip up to us.

They sent me a link on Zillow to their new house, so I spent a little time checking out the other homes in the area. Those homes — perfectly nice places with a couple of bathrooms and three bedrooms — are a quarter of the price of homes in my neck of the woods. This is why people are leaving the metropolitan regions, like Chicago and New York.

Not really a big deal, I suppose. If North Carolina can offer people a better quality of life than the older cities, then good for them. Families, like mine, that need alternative schooling options for disabled children and have work tied to the big cities can never go there, but there are many families who are more flexible. So, good for them, right?

However, if some areas of the country are homes of the rich and others are homes of the middle class, working class, and retirees, then it does open up some political problems.

Imagine if the representatives from some states become advocates not for the interests of the particular local industries, ie Iowa farmers, West Virginia coal miners, but for entire economic classes, ie New York Rich People and North Carolina Retirees. Then political debates would be less about opposing commercial interests and directly about class. I suppose it is that way now, but those economic tensions could be more obvious and competitive than they are already.

Any discussion about changing the electoral college or representation in Senate would also become strongly charged with these economic tension.

Sidenote — If we limit the voice of small population states in the electoral college and the Senate, it might make affairs more democratic, but it would also mean a massive disinvestment in the entire center of the country. There would be no federal projects for highway construction in Nebraska, say or farm subsidies in Iowa. There might be really cheap homes out there, but there would be no way to drive to those houses.

The growing affluence of big cities is going to have long term political implications.

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Jersey Towns

New Jersey is a strange place. Sandwiched in between New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey doesn’t have its own culture or personality. In the North, we know more about the traffic patterns of Cross Bronx expressway than what’s going on around the Meadowlands; South Jersey cheers for the Phillies. People here self-identify based on their towns, not the state. People will say that they’re from Secaucus or Paterson, not from Jersey.

If all politics are local, Jersey takes it a step further. All life is local here. People grow up in their towns and never leave. They coach their kid’s little league games on the same fields that they played on as kids. They gradually will open up to new people who land in their towns and will be friendly enough, but their loyalties always remain with the long standing locals and their relatives who all live about ten minutes away. Sundays mean huge extended families and a large pasta dinner.

We moved to our first home in a New Jersey town, when Jonah was five. We needed a backyard and nearby schools. We embraced our new lives and planned on staying for the long haul. But then, things started falling apart. Our youngest son didn’t attend school in the town, because of his disability, so we only had one kid involved in the town life, which centered around the kids’ sports leagues. Our property value kept dropping, because new zoning laws put our home just a few yards from a commercial district. The test scores for the school put the town on a NCLB watchlist, and nobody seemed to care.

We put the house – a home that we had lovingly restored – on the market and moved six years ago to a new town. It  was a big deal. Some of our old friends stopped talking to us. Jonah was in middle school at the time and he had a rough transition. We went from a 15-year to a 30-year mortgage. But we were desperate. We needed a change.

It was a gamble. We didn’t really know that the new town would provide our kids with a better education. We didn’t really know if the house would be a good investment. We didn’t really know if we would fit into this new community.

This town has more people who have lived elsewhere, more professionals, higher school test scores, sports teams that win everything, and is much, much bigger. But that’s just stats on a wikipedia page. What about the intangibles?

Friends asked me last week, if we did the right thing. I had a few glasses of wine in me at the time, and didn’t have a great answer ready. I’ve been thinking about this question all week.

This town is different from a lot of other Jersey towns, because it is so atypically Jersey. It’s not based on tribal family ties, but on a tradition of social capital. There are a million different clubs and activities. I’ve been at meetings for the school or politics every night this week. People volunteer like crazy. And they have super high skill levels. The presidents of the PTA have MBA’s from Harvard or ran the publicity department of a Fortune 500 company before becoming a stay at home mother.

The Newcomers club has hundreds of members. There are genealogy societies at the library. The Presbyterian church hosted the West Point marching band. The Catholic church runs a food kitchen. There’s the League of Women Voters, a historical society, tech classes, cooking classes, amateur birding clubs, dozens of book groups, free movies.

Since I spend so many hours in front of a computer during the day, it’s nice to have those social outlets in the evening. With only one kid in the local public school, I’m much less plugged in than others, but I get by.

With all the intensity in town, I can’t say for certain that the move was great for our kids. Somethings they do get lost in shuffle. There have been pros and cons, for sure. Steve and myself benefitted in more obvious ways though we still bat around the idea of moving back to Manhattan when Ian finishes school.

I suppose I still don’t have a great answer about whether or not our gamble paid off. For the present, it did.

Could a State Takeover Help Chicago’s Struggling Public Schools?

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Chicago’s public schools are in trouble. Nearly $6 billion in debt, the district staved off immediate financial collapse this month only by selling $725 million in bonds to Wall Street at an unusually high interest rate. Meanwhile, thousands of protesters organized by the Chicago Teachers Union clogged streets in the Loop during the evening rush hour last week, demanding higher salaries, greater contributions to pension and health-care plans, and a cap on charter schools. Chicago Public Schools is the third largest district in the nation.

In response to this crisis, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner proposed a rather extreme remedy: a state takeover of the city’s public schools. The move—which could ultimately be rejected by the Democratically controlled legislature—would involve taking control from local education and political leaders over some, or even all, schools in the district. Eleven states, most of them led by Republican governors, have similarly passed or debated legislation to create state-run school districts in the past year, including Michigan, Arkansas, Nevada, and Wisconsin. But research and past experience show that takeovers by themselves are not a cure all for the problems faced by struggling urban schools.

More here.

Where Women Work and What Unemployed Women Do

The Upshot is one my first reads of the day. Best new section of the New York Times by far. They had two great articles in the past two days. There is so much data to be unpacked. Loves it.

Yesterday’s article was about the differences in time-use studies between unemployed women and men. There’s a lot of info in that chart, but the main take away is that unemployed men are unhealthy, watch a lot of TV, and spend a lot of time looking for a job. Unemployed women spend most of their time caring for others and doing housework. They are healthier than when they worked.

Today, they have a map of where working women are most common. The upper mid-west and New England have the highest proportion of working women.

These numbers are tough to unpack. Are women unemployed, because they live in wealthy communities that support stay-at-home mothers and have spouses with high paying careers? Or are they full time parents, because the obstacles to work are too high? Are they caring for elementary aged children with relative ease or are they caring for multiple aging adults and special needs kids?

If unemployed women have a full range of choices and are financially affluent, then there doesn’t seem to be a problem. Choices were freely and happily made. If unemployed women are facing the same dismal job market as men and can’t afford childcare or eldercare, then there’s a real problem. The fact that the employment of women has a geographic pattern makes me think that childcare policies and job opportunities are major issues. The Upper Midwest and New England have more progressive policies for parents.

The News Blackout of State Politics

Important laws are being crafted at state capitals across this country about things that you care about — gay marriage, gun regulation, abortion, schools, drug policy, and state colleges. In fact, you probably have more opinions and personal interest in things going on in your state capital, than you do in Washington. But you probably aren’t hearing about it on the local news shows or in your local paper. These laws are being crafted in the dark.

Partly, this is because you aren’t reading your local paper or watching your local news. Most of those news sources don’t exist anymore. And you are too distracted with all the other fun things on the Internet to find the weird cable channel that does cover this information.

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Pew has some great statistics on the decline of news coverage of state politics. In the past ten years, there has been a 35% drop in the number of reporters covering state politics.

On average, there are 15 full-time reporters working in each statehouse, but the total varies from state to state. The largest full-time contingent (53 full-time reporters) works in Austin, Texas, followed by 43 full-timers in Sacramento, California. Conversely, the state with the fewest full-time journalists at the capitol is South Dakota, with only two; one of them works for the Associated Press and the other writes for six newspapers. The Pew Research study found a clear correlation between the population of a state and the size of its statehouse press contingent.

Who’s filling in the gap? Students, non-profits, probably some state politics bloggers. But that’s not enough.

State Hate

2014-04-29_State_Residents_Desire_MoveVox has an article on the latest Gallup poll, which asked people if they wanted to move from their state. People in Montana, Hawaii, and Maine were the happiest. Only 23% of people in those states said they would like to move. People in Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland were most discontent with their locations. Between 50 to 47 percent of people in those states wanted out. Other unhappy places included Nevada, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Lousiana, and Mississippi.

So, why are the discontent states so discontent? I would think that housing prices were a factor. Everybody I know plans to leave the areas as soon as their kids finish high school. They plan on selling their tiny homes here and buying a huge place elsewhere. But then Mississippi and Nevada are on the list, too. So, housing prices aren’t the whole story. It’s interesting that NJ, LA, and RI are on the list, because all three states have the highest levels of political corruption. It can’t be the weather, because Maine, Minnesota, and South Dakota is on the happy list. What’s the story here?