“New McMansions and Disappearing Jobs: A Tale of Two Rural Americas”

Here is a brief summary of two trends in rural America: growing exurbs (which can include McMansions) yet a decline in jobs.

On the positive side of rural, Teresa Wiltz writes for Stateline, the very useful news and analysis source of the Pew Charitable Trusts, that “new census data show that for the first time since 2010, the outermost suburban counties are growing faster than urban counties and close-in suburbs.” The demographic change that Wiltz describes is the increase of 146,000 in new exurban residents attributable to domestic migration. The “vibe” of these exurbs, she writes, “is decidedly rural Americana.”

Why are the exurbs growing? Wiltz cites multiple potential reasons for this turnaround, including people moving to the exurbs for jobs (she cites Joel Kotkin, the well-known author, who believes that suburbanization is the likely route to growth around the world, to point out that “the vast majority of jobs aren’t in the cities”) and for “bigger and more affordable homes in a more wide-open space.”…

Some of the exurban growth might be attributable to the economic revival, but Bill Bishop reports in the Daily Yonder that, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, job growth in rural America stopped pretty abruptly in 2014. Between January 2014 and January 2015, rural counties lost 331,000 jobs while metropolitan counties gained 3.1 million jobs. Job losses almost always correlate with workforce and population losses; the rural workforce dropped 557,000 during 2014, which almost assuredly means that rural counties lost population as well.

It may be that these contrasting stories describe an in-migration by people who can choose to live wherever they want and an outmigration of people who have to go where there are jobs. Those in-migrants pose tough challenges for rural areas. Wiltz, for example, mentions in her piece seeing McMansions, farmhouses, mobile homes, and designer outlet stores together in the exurban area 40 miles north of Atlanta. That kind of mix of land uses can constitute a planner’s nightmare and a challenging issue for citizens groups trying to determine how residential development and open space and farmland preservation should be balanced.

There are a few confounding issues at play here:

1. This article mixes the ideas of exurbs and rural areas. The exurbs are between suburbs and the rural areas but what exactly does this mean? It is hard to know. Is 40 miles from Atlanta the suburbs or a rural area or exurbs? Exurbs often means the suburban fringe.

2. Having a rural “vibe” is also a vague idea. I assume this means big lots and smaller communities. But, a good number of Americans say they would prefer to live in “small towns” and these exurban areas may offer just that.

3. If the last paragraph is correct, the people building and/or buying McMansions in the exurbs are the same people driving the higher ends of the housing market in suburbs and cities. As the bottom end of the housing market continues to struggle, those with money can afford to move further out from the city and into big homes.

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