We Need To Welcome Outsiders

Much is made of Upstate New York’s population decline. There’s countless theories on the cause of the gradual outmigration for the last many years. Everyone seems to have their own simple explanation from taxes to weather to the Governor’s Queens accent. Most explanations are too simplistic.

The problem — if it is a problem — of Americans fleeing rural counties isn’t just in Upstate New York. Across the country, young adults are leaving small towns for big cities. Increasingly, people are concentrating in dense metro centers, mostly on the coasts. Big cities are becoming crowded while farm towns and even small cities can’t get people to stay. It is easy in New York to blame regulations and New York City bias but it’s happening in red states too.

Urbanization is a natural consequence of our modernized economy. Politicians like to deride the loss of manufacturing jobs and blame it on the “unfriendly business environment.” Unfortunately, the truth is everybody likes buying cheap stuff on Amazon from China, Vietnam and Bangladesh. So, instead of paying generous wages to their workers or dealing with fair business regulations, companies just produce their goods in places where workers’ rights aren’t a priority. We still buy it.

Sadly, the days of a blue collar manufacturing middle-class might be gone. As our economy has shifted to service and technology based, education and computer skills are at a premium. All the techy professionals seem to prefer cities for obvious reasons. Digital information, marketing and advertising is the economy. A tech startup can employ 50 people who all make decent pay working on laptops in Starbucks.

These are vast, drastic changes in our economic system that are beyond governments ability to control. We shouldn’t look to them to fix the population problem. If you like living in a quiet, rural area; great! It’s only getting quieter. Of course there are gems like Chautauqua County and others with so much to offer. It’s just that people and information are what make 21st century America go–and they’re in cities.

Be that as it may, any community big, small, urban, rural needs to attract innovation to survive. Some places who have experienced similar outmigration responded by welcoming immigrants and refugees. Many of them have endured war, poverty, hunger and violence to make it to America. They arrive with hope and ambition to work hard and contribute for a fair shot at prosperity. They bring unique experiences but are nonetheless eager to take part in the America we love–getting educated, paying taxes, opening businesses, working in the service industry or farming.

From where I sit, state and local governments don’t have silver bullet strategies to prevent essentially inevitable rural outmigration. A good place to start, however, is welcoming outsiders to the places we call home.

Derek Smith is a Frewsburg native.