Is Appalachia the East Germany of the 21st century?
That’s the provocative analogy recently advanced by David Brooks, a conservative columnist for The New York Times.
“Conservative” in this case should be read in the classical sense, not the Trumpian sense. Brooks’ credentials check off some of the nation’s best-known conservative publications — op-ed editor at The Wall Street Journal, senior editor at The Weekly Standard. On the other hand, Brooks is no fan of President Trump or his nationalist populism. In particular, he takes issues with Trump’s desire to cut legal immigration, which is what prompted his recent column headlined “The East Germans of the 21st century.”
“Every few years I try to write a column staking out a reasonable middle ground on immigration,” Brooks wrote. “And every few years I fail. That’s because when you wade into the evidence, you find that the case for restricting immigration is pathetically weak. The only people who have less actual data on their side are the people who deny climate change.”
Brooks then reviews one of the arguments for reducing immigration — that the United States in recent years has taken in a large number of immigrants, which has changed the nation’s demographics in ways that strain national cohesion. Perhaps it’s time for a pause? That’s the viewpoint of immigration hard-liners such as Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who has warned that the United States is taking in too many immigrants from non-Western nations: “I’d like to see an America that’s just so homogenous that we look a lot the same.”
Brooks set out to explore that thesis — and his Exhibit A is Appalachia.
“If you start in rural New England and drive down into Appalachia or across into the Upper Midwest you will be driving through county after county with few immigrants,” Brooks wrote. “These rural places are often 95 percent white. These places lack the diversity restrictionists say is straining the social fabric.
“Are these counties marked by high social cohesion, economic dynamism, surging wages and healthy family values? No. Quite the opposite. They are often marked by economic stagnation, social isolation, family breakdown and high opioid addiction.”
Brooks goes on to quote the conservative (and quite controversial) author Charles Murray, who has written that “the feasibility of the American project has historically been based on industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity.” Brooks agrees with that point, but then goes on to say “it is a blunt fact of life that, these days, immigrants show more of these virtues than the native-born.”
Immigrants, Brooks points out, “start new businesses at twice the rate of nonimmigrants . . . Immigrants have much more traditional views on family structure than the native-born and much lower rates of out-of-wedlock births. They commit much less crime than the native-born. Roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males between 18 and 39 wind up incarcerated compared with 3.3 percent of the native-born.”
Brooks piles on more statistics but his point is clear: Appalachia is very homogenous, with very little immigration, but those traits haven’t helped its economy.
On the contrary, he makes the case that the lack of immigration has hurt Appalachia.
Here’s where the East Germany comparison comes in. When Germany was divided after World II, we effectively saw an experiment between capitalism and communism — and it’s pretty clear which system produced the more prosperous country. The United States, he says, has “willy-nilly, conducted a similar experiment.”
The nation’s cities have embraced immigration; rural areas have not. “The results are just as clear as in the German case,” Brooks writes. “Between 2014 and 2016 the counties that embrace diversity accounted for 72 percent of the nation’s increased economic output and two-thirds of the new jobs. The approximately 85 percent of counties that support restrictionists like Donald Trump accounted for a measly 28 percent of the growth.”
Brooks is sometimes accused by critics of making sweeping generalizations and here’s one. There are other differences between high-growth cities and low-growth (or no-growth) rural areas than immigration. For one, the post-industrial economy places a high importance on education and skills. On that score, metro areas have an inherent advantage over rural areas. Many rural economies have traditionally been based on the extraction of natural resources (be it coal or timber), not the creation of new ideas.
In Silicon Valley, nearly 47 percent of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree. The national average is 30 percent. For the New River-Roanoke-Lynchburg region, it’s 25 percent. West of Wytheville, it’s 13.9 percent. In Southside, it’s 13.5 percent. Given those figures, it’s no wonder that new economy jobs cluster in metro areas and bypass rural ones, no matter what their demography.
Still, Brooks has a point worth considering. Does the lack of diversity make it difficult for Appalachia — or other rural areas — to attract those new economy jobs? The state’s GO Virginia economic development councils — dominated by business leaders — are hardly a hotbed of political correctness. However, the report issued by the Richmond area council quoted human resource directors who warned that the city’s Civil War background made it difficult to recruit new talent: “The HR directors felt that they had to overcome a sense from people outside the area that Richmond was still the Capital of the Confederacy and not the ideal place for professionals who wanted to live in a vibrant, culturally diverse location.”
Likewise, at one recent meeting of the GO Virginia economic council for the Lynchburg-Roanoke-New River Valley region, one health-care executive cited the region’s lack of diversity as obstacle when it comes to recruiting outside talent. It’s also notable that when Amazon listed the criteria for its much-ballyhooed second headquarters, one of the key criteria was “the presence and support of a diverse population.”
There are a million reasons why Amazon isn’t coming to Appalachia — the company said it would only consider cities with at least a million people. But Brooks’ column suggests there may be one big reason why other tech companies are passing us by: We have too many low-skilled natives and not enough high-skilled immigrants.