Danville, a town in Illinois, already was struggling when Tara Holycross and her friends were kids riding their bikes to Custard Cup, swimming at the park district pool and hanging out in the Wendy's parking lot.
Manufacturers that provided thousands of well-paying, middle class jobs, General Motors, General Electric, Hyster, were closing. Neighborhoods were crumbling. By the time Holycross graduated from high school in 2004, a city best known for its massive downtown grain elevator was scrambling to create new opportunities.
Ten years later, this city of 32,500 still is struggling. But Holycross and some of her classmates are doing just fine, because they moved.
They're doctors and athletic trainers, software specialists and financial advisers. They're living all over the country, from Chicago to Charleston, South Carolina, to Boulder, Colorado, where they found solid jobs that reward the kind of education they have. Holycross and four classmates interviewed said about half of their class of fewer than 50 left town, and those they're in touch with landed good positions.
"I knew there wasn't an opportunity for me to have my career" in Danville, said Holycross, 28, a third-generation native who now works as an athletic trainer in Beloit, Wisconsin, about 90 miles northwest of Chicago.
Their experience is a counterpoint to the desperation gripping so many rural and manufacturing communities in the Midwest hard hit by global economic changes. The flow of educated workers from struggling communities to areas with brighter job opportunities might, to some extent, help shore up the middle class, which has been squeezed by a widening gap between the richest Americans and everyone else.
Since roughly 1980, income has grown most for the top earners and dropped for the poorest 20 percent. Incomes for the highest-earning 1 percent of Americans soared 31 percent from 2009 through 2012, after adjusting for inflation, according to data compiled by Emmanuel Saez, a University of California economist. For everyone else, it barely budged.
While Wall Street traders and software CEOs soared to enormous affluence, waves of people fell out of the middle class as manufacturing's share of the economy shrank. Following the downside arc of the wealth gap was inevitable for many who stayed in stricken factory towns. For others, though, escaping meant separating their own fate from that of their hometowns.
Between 2012 and 2013, more than 26.7 million people age 18 and over moved, 17.3 million of them to a different county. Those in their 20s and 30s with a college degree were most likely to move for job reasons and to move the farthest. In that period, people poured out of declining cities like Detroit, whose population dropped by almost 10,000, and into economic hotspots like San Antonio, which grew by 25,378.
The trend of more-educated people moving and less-educated staying began to emerge several years ago. A Census Bureau study found that more than half of highly educated workers who moved between 2005 and 2010 left their counties. By contrast, 70 percent of people without high school diplomas who moved did so within the same county.
Decades ago, many unskilled workers were able to migrate to better conditions elsewhere. But good blue-collar jobs are now harder to find anywhere.
"If we pushed someone who's stayed in Detroit to suddenly hit the road and move to Chicago, would that person suddenly do better? Or has that person stayed behind exactly because he or she can't find a good-paying job in Chicago?" said Danny Yagan, a University of California economist who studies mobility.
There's no comprehensive data contrasting the financial fortunes of those who have stayed in place and those who have left. But the partial glimpses available are revealing.
A survey of nearly 3,000 2012 graduates of 15 public universities in Michigan, a state especially afflicted by manufacturing's decline, found that 37 percent were living in another state a year later. Those who moved were far more likely to have a full-time job: 86 percent compared with 68 percent of those who stayed put. And they tended to earn significantly more.
Differences in living costs can make moving chancy, but aren't always a negative factor. People who left California during the recession for bustling San Antonio, riding an oil boom and technology expansion, often accepted pay decreases but were better off overall because of Texas' lower costs.
Struggling towns are emphasizing college and trade school to young people, hoping that a higher-quality workforce will attract employers yet also aware that education makes it easier for people to leave.
For Stephanie Shinn Gaydos, a 2004 high school graduate from Danville who now practices medicine in Charleston, South Carolina, moving back to Danville isn't an option because of the difference in opportunities.
"That's a shame because I'm close to my family," she said.
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