The Wisconsin state legislature recently approved appropriations for a multi-million dollar ad campaign designed to bring professionals like me back to the state. They are hoping to lure Millennials back by emphasizing the lower congestion and cost of living in their smaller-scale cities, in comparison to large cities like Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Chicago which attract many young residents, particularly college graduates.
They're pitching to me — or at least to my demographic. Before I moved to the Washington region for a job, I was living in the small city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin (technically its even smaller neighbor, Altoona), where I moved for a job after graduate school. Small cities like Eau Claire have a low cost of living and sufficient economic opportunity for many families. However, even the promise of a backyard and time to grill won’t be enough to get many people back to midwestern towns.
Low cost of living is a draw in small cities, but a partner's job can change the calculation
Phil and Dani Dedman's story reveals one of the underappreciated reasons that many young professionals are opting for large cities, even with their unaffordable housing. The pair moved to Eau Claire from an exurb of Minneapolis to escape high housing costs and a long commute:
“For one thing, it’s much more affordable for them. With Dani caring for the couple’s sons, ages 6 and 3, the Dedmans had been a single-income family for awhile in the Twin Cities before they made the move to Wisconsin. It was tough to make it work.
They’re able to live much more comfortably on one income in Eau Claire, Dedman said, and they were even able to trade in their house in the northern Twin Cities exurb of Dayton for a great old house near the center of town in Eau Claire.”
As a single-income household with only one career to consider, the benefits of small-city life in Eau Claire outweighed the opportunity costs of forgoing the economic opportunities of Minnesota. This could have been me. With my strong salary at a local legal services provider, I could have easily afforded a house within a short walk of my job and within good walking, biking, and driving range of many amenities.
However, the job opportunities for my husband were limited. For us, the desire to each pursue career opportunities was the primary reason we made the move to DC after I was offered a job. Taking the cost of living into account, I effectively took a pay cut to move to Arlington. The gamble paid off when my husband found a good-paying job in his field.
Even though we now make the median income in Arlington, we feel the effects of the region's extreme housing shortage. Research on the paradox of urbanization shows that the desire of families like mine to move to prosperous metropolitan areas is exacerbating economic inequality. Members of the “creative class” are clustering in a few “superstar” cities, and within those cities clustering further into prosperous neighborhoods — especially ones with great transit.
What has been under-explored in contemporary analysis of cities is the role of two-income households. My desire to live in a transit-rich neighborhood in Arlington, even though I could pay significantly less to live only a mile or two away, is the desire to accommodate two jobs with a reasonable commute.
With more households looking to advance two careers, the pressure on job-rich, transit-rich areas has increased. With the power of two incomes, we are able to outbid single-income households. Single-career households are also more flexible in where they locate and are less dependent on transit.
Urban communities need to make transit-rich areas accessible to all
Viewed from this perspective, the “new urban crisis” can be understood in part as the result of changes in gender roles and professional ambitions, as more couples equally prioritize two distinct careers.
Of course, every family has different values and balances competing priorities of career opportunity, space, and neighborhood amenities. Taking care of one’s children at home is a valuable role, and has the benefit of being very portable. When both partners want to work outside the home, paying more to live in a job-rich, transit-rich city makes sense, despite the higher cost.
The desirability of cities is more than just about aesthetics or lifestyle preferences. Urban living is essential for many couples with multiple careers. Promoting the leisure benefits of small cities in Wisconsin won’t appeal to families like mine.
On the flip side, communities like Arlington could do much more to make transit-rich neighborhoods work for middle-class families. Zoning for greater density even in single-family neighborhoods like Eau Claire’s competitor Minneapolis is proposing could help reduce the housing burden — and give more families the time and space for a backyard barbeque.