History has seen this before. As the Industrial Revolution picked up steam in Britain, family farms and local industries became obsolete, and people were forced to relocate from villages to industrial cities, where most of the remunerative work was now being done. The shift led to overcrowded cities, desolate, abandoned villages and the fracturing of the extended family into smaller, more mobile — but less resilient — units.
A similar desolation has in recent decades been visited upon vast swaths of America, as manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to cheaper climes, and the “good” jobs of the new economy have become concentrated in a handful of Zip codes, sometimes called “Super Zips.” In 2013, when the term was first coming into common usage, The Post counted 650 of these elite areas where median household income was $120,000 and two-thirds of adults had college degrees. The most concentrated clusters of super Zips are gathered, unsurprisingly, in and around cities such as the District, San Francisco, New York and Boston.
This has led to startling contrasts. A couple of the writers I follow on Twitter have the good fortune and sense to live far away from these super Zips, and they occasionally tweet out excruciatingly affordable Midwestern real estate listings that offer stately homes and nice yards for less than $100,000. The listings come with estimated monthly mortgage payments that are usually less than the cost of renting a small bedroom in, say, Cambridge, Mass., where I sit and read their posts through a grimace.
Here in Cambridge, we have leafy streets, interesting work, good restaurants, decent earning potential and hordes of highly educated people. If you want to do white-collar work, it’s a good place to be. We also have a massive economic problem: It’s oppressively expensive to live here. Few families can survive without two serious incomes, even if they would like to. Nannies and day-care workers abound, but neither they, nor any of the service workers who keep the city running, could dream of living here.
Cambridge is neither unique nor the most egregious example. The Brookings Institution recently found that while the median income in San Francisco rose by 26 percent between 2008 and 2016, rents doubled during the same period. The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines “Low Income Limits” in San Francisco as $82,200 for an individual and $117,400 for a family of four. The federal poverty guidelines, by contrast, put the poverty line at $12,140 for an individual and $25,100 for a family of four.
The dire situation in San Francisco is a matter of inflated demand; right now lots of people need to live near Silicon Valley. But what if the newly discovered feasibility of remote work means that’s no longer true? Many of these workers grew up somewhere else, and upon finishing college, had to choose between proximity to family and working in their chosen professions. What if they could take their tech wages and bring them home? The answer would be a boon for those non-super-Zip economies, and maybe even for those who choose to stay in super Zips, which might become more affordable as result of decreased demand. It would most definitely be a boon for the personal lives of extended families that no longer have to relate primarily via telephone and video chat.
Remote work is not always ideal, but some successful companies swear by it. The project management software company Basecamp is headquartered in Chicago, but it allows its employees to work from anywhere while paying them a rate that would put them in the top 10 percent of San Franciscans, regardless. Can you imagine what those wages can buy in northern Maine? Unsurprisingly, Basecamp boasts remarkably high retention rates and a happy workforce. Suppose, after the pandemic passes, that the approach of Basecamp, and now Twitter, became the norm and not the exception.
We all know that lockdown has been an economic calamity, but maybe some good can come of it, if we play our cards right and use the great covid-19 disruption to steer our economy in a more humane direction. Let’s break up the super Zips. Let the resettling of America begin.