Divided America

In The New Geography of Jobs, Enrico Moretti writes: Menlo Park is a lively community in the heart of Silicon Valley, just minutes from Stanford University’s manicured campus and many of the Valley’s most dynamic high-tech companies. Surrounded by some of the wealthiest zip codes in California, its streets are lined with an eclectic mix of midcentury ranch houses side by side with newly built mini-mansions and low-rise apartment buildings. In 1969, David Breedlove was a young engineer with a beautiful wife and a house in Menlo Park. They were expecting their first child. Breedlove liked his job and had even turned down an offer from Hewlett-Packard, the iconic high-tech giant in the Valley. Nevertheless, he was considering leaving Menlo Park to move to a medium-sized town called Visalia. About a three-hour drive from Menlo Park, Visalia sits on a flat, dry plain in the heart of the agricultural San Joaquin Valley. Its residential neighborhoods have the typical feel of many Southern California communities, with wide streets lined with one-story houses, lawns with shrubs and palm trees, and the occasional backyard pool. It’s hot in the summer, with a typical maximum temperature in July of ninety-four degrees, and cold in the winter.

Breedlove liked the idea of moving to a more rural community with less pollution, a shorter commute, and safer schools. Menlo Park, like many urban areas at the time, did not seem to be heading in the right direction. In the end, Breedlove quit his job, sold the Silicon Valley house, packed, and moved the family to Visalia. He was not the only one. Many well-educated professionals at the time were leaving cities and moving to smaller communities because they thought those communities were better places to raise families. But things did not turn out exactly as they expected.

In 1969, both Menlo Park and Visalia had a mix of residents with a wide range of income levels. Visalia was predominantly a farming community with a large population of laborers but also a sizable number of professional, middle-class families. Menlo Park had a largely middle-class population but also a significant number of working-class and low-income households. The two cities were not identical—the typical resident of Menlo Park was somewhat better educated than the typical resident of Visalia and earned a slightly higher salary—but the differences were relatively small. In the late 1960s, the two cities had schools of comparable quality and similar crime rates, although Menlo Park had a slightly higher incidence of violent crime, especially aggravated assault. The natural surroundings in both places were attractive. While Menlo Park was close to the Pacific Ocean beaches, Visalia was near the Sierra Nevada range and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Today the two places could not be more different, but not in the way David Breedlove envisioned. The Silicon Valley region has grown into the most important innovation hub in the world. Jobs abound, and the average salary of its residents is the second highest in America. Its crime rate is low, its school districts are among the best in the state, and the air quality is excellent. Fully half of its residents have a college degree, and many have a PhD, making it the fifth best educated urban area in the nation. Menlo Park keeps attracting small and large high-tech employers, including most recently the new Facebook headquarters.

By contrast, Visalia has the second lowest percentage of college-educated workers in the country, almost no residents with a postgraduate degree, and one of the lowest average salaries in America. It is the only major city in the Central Valley that does not have a four-year college. Its crime rate is high, and its schools, structurally unable to cope with the vast number of non-English-speaking students, are among the worst in California. Visalia also consistently ranks among American cities with the worst pollution, especially in the summer, when the heat, traffic, and fumes from farm machines create the third highest level of ozone in the nation.

Not only are the two communities different, but they are growing more and more different every year. For the past thirty years, Silicon Valley has been a magnet for good jobs and skilled workers from all over the world. The percentage of college graduates has increased by two-thirds, the second largest gain among American metropolitan areas. By contrast, few high-paying jobs have been created in Visalia, and the percentage of local workers with a college degree has barely changed in thirty years—one of the worst performances in the country.

For someone like David Breedlove, a highly educated professional with solid career options, choosing Visalia over Menlo Park was a perfectly reasonable decision in 1969. Today it would be almost unthinkable. Although only 200 miles separate these two cities, they might as well be on two different planets. [Continue reading...]

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