The last few years have brought many changes, one of which is the new migration trend being seen across the country. People are relocating from densely packed urban areas and are opting instead for the quiet of the suburbs, with some taking it a step further and moving into rural areas frequently referred to as ‘fly-over country.’
On this week’s episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast, Dr. Brad Littlejohn joins host Traci DeVette Griggs to discuss this trend, especially in light of his recent article, “Loving New Neighbors.”
Cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C. have lost a significant number of their population, while states such as Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina have seen significant growth. Whether it’s due to economics, politics, or just quality of life, there’s something appealing about small-town America in a post-pandemic world.
“What the pandemic did is it made us realize . . . the importance of physical community,” Dr. Littlejohn shares. “The truth is, in less densely populated areas you’re more likely to actually have real community often. I mean if you live in a high-rise apartment block in Manhattan, you don’t actually have the same kind of community life that you do in a small town.”
As our communities gain these new neighbors, Dr. Littlejohn urges us to take advantage of this valuable opportunity to learn to have conversations around political and cultural issues. “We have these differences at a national level, and we might as well learn how to deal with them in our local communities. And a lot of it is just about learning the art of real conversation around disagreements.”
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TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. No one has to tell you that Americans have faced a torrent of challenges and changes in recent years. Well, both our culture and our geography have been somewhat reshaped. Not only are Americans shifting politics, but many of us are physically moving to new locations.
North Carolina is one of the states that has experienced unprecedented growth including a lot of new people moving from cities into small towns. All of this brings a host of both challenges and opportunities for communities and individuals.
Well, Dr. Brad Littlejohn joins us today to talk about this and his recent article, “Loving New Neighbors.” He is the president of The Davenant Institute and a fellow in the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program. Dr. Brad Littlejohn, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.
BRAD LITTLEJOHN: Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Start off by telling us what do we know about the population trends of Americans over the last few years, as far as where they are choosing to live and work?
BRAD LITTLEJOHN: Well, the data is really interesting. We all have kind of this anecdotal sense of knowing people who have moved from big urban metropolitan areas to smaller towns, have been moving from perhaps blue states to red states during or after the pandemic, and it’s not just anecdotal. The numbers really do show that, for instance, California and New York actually saw declines in population, and if you drill down and look at some of the big urban centers like San Francisco or New York City, the declines are really quite substantial.
And on the other hand, we do see people are moving — it’s kind of stereotypical — people are moving from California to Florida or California to Texas or New York to Florida. That’s real. More often, though, what’s happening — so there is movement to some of these southern states, particularly states that perhaps had less pandemic restrictions, immigrate to the states that had stricter pandemic restrictions. But more often it’s people moving within a state or within at least a couple hundred-mile radius from expensive urban core to less expensive suburbs or, indeed, just rural areas. In fact, the chart is fascinating. Basically, the more densely populated a zip code was, the more population it lost percentagewise, and the less densely populated a zip code was, the more percentage gain it was. So really it’s a move from more dense places to less dense places.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, we can make some guesses as to why Americans are doing that, but are there some statistics that tell us why the dramatic lifestyle changes?
BRAD LITTLEJOHN: There’s the obvious factor of during a period of stricter lockdown in urban areas, if you didn’t agree with those policies or even if you agreed with the policies but you’d rather not be living in an apartment building where you’re locked up in your apartment. If you’re going to be social distancing anyway, you might as well do it out in the country where you can spread out a bit.
So there was a natural movement from urban cores with strict pandemic restrictions and higher rates of virus transmission to rural areas. Part of that is a political reaction to those conservatives who perhaps opposed some of those restrictions, but, of course, right on the heels of that, you also have the protests and the riots, which are, again, concentrated in many of these same more liberal urban cores. And so people who just didn’t want to live in a neighborhood that’s being looted for one thing or they might particularly be frustrated by the fact that maybe their Democratic mayor seemed to be encouraging the riots. So you’ve got these urban centers that were more liberal to begin with, but even those conservatives that were still there are more likely to move out. Right? So that’s a big factor.
But, of course, another thing we’re dealing with is simply economics. Right? It’s more expensive to live in urban cores. It’s more expensive to live in New York and California, and previously you may have had to do that for your job, but with the move to remote work, all of the sudden lots of people could work from anywhere. And if you can work from anywhere, why not have a house twice the size for the same price? So a big part of the factor is just people moving from more expensive areas to less expensive areas because they now can, and I think that is going to — some of that is going to reverse in the near term, but I think in many industries there’s been a shift to remote work that isn’t going to change. And a lot of people are going to continue moving to those lower cost areas where they can work remotely.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Interesting. Do you think it’s also possible that people are seeking a different kind of community? Have we changed at the root of who we are?
BRAD LITTLEJOHN: That is true to some extent. What the pandemic did is it made us realize — being separated from physical community made us realize the importance of physical community. And while I talked about people moving from more densely populated areas to less densely populated areas, the truth is in less densely populated areas you’re more likely to actually have real community. I mean if you live in a high-rise apartment block in Manhattan, you don’t actually have the same kind of community life that you do in a small town.
So I think people are valuing those face-to-face relationships and saying how can I choose a lifestyle that actually enables me to invest in those more. If you’re working remotely on Zoom, then all the more so that you and I have a rich context of in-person relationships.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We can just imagine the challenges that there would be for people who are moving from high-density areas like New York City or San Francisco into some of our small towns across America. It can be a culture shock for the people who live in those small towns, too, to have these women and men come in from the city.
So talk a little bit about that. What’s going on with those two communities? Are they clashing? Do you have some tips for how we can have productive conversations over some of our differences?
BRAD LITTLEJOHN: Well, as I mention in my article, there’s really two distinct trends that can kind of point in opposite directions. It sort of depends on which community you’re in which trend is more dominant. So the one I call the sort of political refugee trend. So this is the person who is leaving San Francisco or leaving California altogether because they’re tired of the lockdowns and they’re tired of the lack of policing and so on, and they want to go to a red state that shares their more conservative values. So I call this political refugees, people seeking a more likeminded cultural and political environment. And so what’s going to happen with that is that can actually tend to increase polarization. You have a conservative, small town community, and then you have people coming in from out of state who are coming there because they want to live near people who share their values and politics. And, of course, that brings with it one set of dangers. It brings the sort of danger that we’re already very polarized and if people are sorting out geographically more on those political lines, that’s going to increase that polarization that’s going to make us less able to — the fact of the matter is we do still have to share a country with people of the other political persuasion.
So if neighbors are sorting themselves out to only live near neighbors who agree with them, there’s some advantages to that, but there’s some disadvantages in terms of our ability to work through our differences on a national scale. So we can talk more about that.
The other trend is the economic refugee trend, as I call it, which is people who are mainly moving just because they’d rather live somewhere less expensive. And I think this is really the more significant trend because the fact is if we’re thinking about we have this kind of idea of the conservative family trying to raise kids in a liberal city and they’re just like they’ve had it, they’re going to go to Texas or something. It’s actually a lot harder to move if you’re a family with a bunch of kids than if you’re single in your twenties. And what we’ve seen is the dominant demographic that’s been making these moves are like single individuals in their twenties who are going to tend to be more politically liberal.
So that trend actually tends to take liberal people and dump them into conservative communities, where they’re just moving there not because they want more guns but because they just want cheaper housing. And so that’s going to create a culture shock that’s going to be the opposite phenomenon where you’re going to have conservative communities that are suddenly having to grapple with somebody from Manhattan who has totally different values in their back yard. So that’s going to force upon us conversations that we might not otherwise have had.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay. So do you have some suggestions or places that we can go when we’re confronted with this, as far as how to have those kinds of conversations?
BRAD LITTLEJOHN: Yeah. I think although it can be disorienting for many smaller town, rural communities suddenly faced with these outsiders — they think quite differently — I think it is a valuable opportunity for us to learn to have conversations around political and cultural issues that, again, we have to deal with these as a nation. We have these differences at a national level, and we might as well learn how to deal with them in our local communities. And a lot of it is just about learning the art of real conversation around disagreements, which most of us aren’t good at. There’s a small sliver of us that if we encounter somebody who seems to have totally different political views, we’re going to just like lay into them and just argue with them right off the bat. Most of us — actually we might do that online, but face-to-face we shy away from confrontation. And we might just kind of sit there and let them say their thing and not say a word.
What we don’t know how to do is to disagree constructively and politely, and I would say the way to do that, it begins with listening. You don’t just barge in and start contradicting someone who has different views, say, about the recent Dobbs Supreme Court decision. What you do is you listen, let them talk, let them share, and what’s going to happen is very often people just assume that the people they’re talking to agree with them. So they’ll just go on and they’ll just — because they’re accustomed to talking to people who agree with them. So what you have to do is find a way of disagreeing obliquely, and so what you do is you say, well, why do you think that? They’ll just say — they’ll make assertions, and they’ll just assume that you agree with them. But then you say why do you think that? And someone might not have asked that before. They actually have to give a reason for their views besides the fact that, well, of course, everybody thinks this. And so then they’ll say, oh, well because such and such and such and such and such. And then you can say, well, what would you say to somebody who doesn’t agree with those reasons that you just gave? And you don’t have to signal right away that you are that person, but they know that there are people in the country who don’t share those beliefs. And so then you give them an opportunity to say, well, I mean what I would say to a pro-life person is such and such. And so then you give them an opportunity to voice on their own, perhaps, why someone might disagree with their position. And then you can say, well, yeah, I actually have some of those disagreements. And so then you can kind of say — you can have a constructive conversation, but you’ve given them space to articulate their views rather than simply contradicting them.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you think that as believers, as Christians, these cultural differences and these kinds of conversations can actually be a good thing, as far as us having opportunities to share why we think the way we do and share our faith?
BRAD LITTLEJOHN: Yeah, I think absolutely if — to the extent that what we’re seeing is yuppies from Manhattan moving into Bible belt communities just because it’s cheaper housing, then it’s an opportunity for those of us in the Bible belt community to share the Gospel, but not just share the Gospel but share the fact that whatever they may have heard on MSNBC or whatever, we’re not a bunch of three-headed monsters. So I think partly by just being hospitable, entering into relationships with your neighbors and showing them that we love and respect them as human beings even if we have political differences, that’s what creates the opening to share the Gospel and to model what it means to be a Christian. So many people are conditioned to think that conservative Christians are intolerant and have no use for them, but if you can show them that you respect them and are happy to have a real conversation around disagreements, that can be really disarming. They just don’t expect that.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Unfortunately, we’re just about out of time, but where can people go if they are listening and they would like to get more information about your work and also read your article, “Loving new neighbors”?
BRAD LITTLEJOHN: I write a column every week or so at WORLD Opinions, WNG.org/opinions, and you’ll find this column of mine a few weeks ago there. I also do a lot of work through the Davenant Institute, DavenantInstitute.org. And then, of course, at EPPC.org, Ethics and Public Policy Center, I have a page where everything I’ve written over the last year shows up there.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. Thank you so much. Dr. Brad Littlejohn, thanks for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
BRAD LITTLEJOHN: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
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