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What Richard Florida misunderstood about why people spend their lives in places like Ohio

Before I moved to Ohio, I might have agreed with Richard Florida’s recent posts on the part of America that's "stuck." He wrote that:

America can be divided into two distinct classes, the stuck and the mobile. The mobile possess the resources and the inclination to seek out and move to locations where they pursue economic opportunity. Too many Americans are stuck in places with limited resources and opportunities. This geography of the stuck and mobile is a key axis of cleavage in the United States.

The mobile, Florida writes, live and move along both coasts and in the Rocky Mountain region. The stuck remain in a belt that extends across the middle of the country and into the South. I grew up in Silicon Valley, a highly mobile region, and spent my college and post-graduate years in Chicago, which, even though it’s located in the Stuck Belt, likely qualifies as a mobile city.

When I moved to Ohio, which Florida cites as the third most "stuck" state in America, I, like Florida, assumed many people lived here because they lacked the chance to move somewhere better. I thought at the time I’d be here two years, maybe three, before moving onto the next opportunity.

Fifteen years later I’m still in Cincinnati, which has one of the highest rates of native-born residents in any urban area of the U.S. So many Cincinnatians were born here that when people ask you where you went to school, they’re referring to high school, not college. And in my years here, I’ve begun to understand why so many natives stay put, or leave the area for just a few years and then return.

They’re not stuck. They're content.

It’s true that Ohio’s economy has suffered along with the rest of the Rust Belt, and the state has lost more than a quarter-million manufacturing jobs in the past decade. But Ohio’s unemployment rate of 8.5 percent is well below that of "mobile" states like Nevada (13 percent), Florida (10 percent), and California (11.3 percent).

Cincinnati in particular remains attractive to large corporations; it ranks in the top 10 markets for Fortune 500 headquarters, with a per capita rate higher than New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Smaller businesses and start-ups may be more effective engines of economic growth, but it never hurts to have companies like Kroger, Procter & Gamble, and Macy’s in town.

But more important than the economy is the quality of life. When I moved here, the hour-plus commutes I’d known in my two previous cities shrunk to 10 minutes, giving me roughly an extra hour and a half a day of free time. I knew of people in the Bay Area, priced out of home ownership in the boom, who had moved to the Central Valley and suffered through two-hour commutes each way, some of them arriving at work at 5 a.m. and sleeping in their cars until 8 a.m. to avoid rush-hour traffic.

That’s the sort of anecdote that makes the stuck pity the mobile, not envy them. Here, especially for people who live within city limits, few things are more than 15 minutes away.

The region’s affordability contributes to the quality of life, too. Not long after I decided to settle here, my husband and I bought a 4,400 square-foot house built in 1905 with a story-and-a-half-high stained-glass window in the foyer and quartersawn oak paneling in the dining room.

It’s the sort of place that doesn’t exist in most of the country and is unaffordable in many other places. But we were able to afford it on a journalist’s salary. Cities like Cincinnati are so affordable that people can actually support themselves making art or music or a dozen other truly creative jobs.

Then there is the social capital built up by living among the people you’ve grown up with. The ties people have to their families and neighbors here are worth forgoing many of the economic opportunities other cities may offer. It’s not only college kids who move back here after they’ve received their degrees. People as varied as my hairdresser, my tennis instructor and my editor moved back after establishing lives and careers in places like San Francisco, Florida, and New Mexico. Having the grandparents babysit on date night, grabbing coffee with your best friend from grade school—it’s hard to quantify benefits like these, but clearly they draw many people back after they’ve sampled life in the bigger city.

A few weeks after Florida’s story on the stuck ran, Atlantic Cities detailed the economic security of the country’s top 100 metro areas. The data, from the Urban Institute, ranked areas based on erosion in house values, current unemployment, purchasing power of a low-wage job and the rate of serious mortgage delinquencies. 

The least secure cities lay along the West and East coasts and in Florida—in exactly the places Richard Florida found to be the most mobile. The most secure cities were clustered in the stuck belt, along the middle of the country and extending into the South. The most secure place was Oklahoma City, the least secure Las Vegas—meaning that the country’s most mobile state is home to the country’s least economically secure city. Mobile places might offer economic opportunity, but they have plenty of economic risk too, especially as we climb out of the Great Recession.

There are drawbacks to living among so many natives. Change is maddeningly slow to take root, because everyone wants things to stay the same as they were when they were children. It can be dangerous to say anything bad about anybody, because the person you’re talking to probably knows the person you’re talking about. But on balance life in Stuck America isn’t nearly as grim as Florida’s posts paint it, and I wasn’t the only one to object to his theory. Dozens of comments posted in response eloquently echoed the reaction I had. "Misinterprets the fundamental problems and advocates the wrong solution," wrote Ben Mummert. "Which is the social ideal? Does mobility make everyone better off?" My favorite, though, came from a poster named Gail Lannum. "Really...stuck," she wrote. "I was born and live in Ohio. My husband and I have great jobs at one of the best hospitals in the country. We are surrounded by our family and friends and enjoy a great standard of living. I don't consider us stuck." Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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