For many New Yorkers, the practical choice is upstate. For other Americans it’s out West, or New Mexico, or West Virginia. For me it’s back home in Vermont — the dreamy bucolic place I keep vague hopes of someday moving to, with no commutes and charming affordable homes whose promise of “outdoor space” isn’t limited to a fire escape.
For Christopher Ingraham, a data reporter for the Washington Post, it was the “worst” county in the United States. In 2015, Ingraham was cramped in a too-small home with his wife and twin toddlers in the Baltimore suburbs, commuting for three hours a day to his job in DC, where he wrote a blog post ranking the best and worst counties in America using data on “natural amenities” like mountains, shorelines, and average temperatures. On the bottom of the list was Red Lake County, Minnesota, and within a year he’d be living there.
Now he has a book about it: If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now, published September 10, argues that over the past few decades cities have become inhospitable to middle-class families due to rising costs and stagnating wages, yet people still cling to them because employers demand they do.
Moving to a town of 4,000 people, of course, isn’t an option for everyone, nor is it a choice that most people would make. But he’s not the first one to do it: Earlier this spring, Michele Anderson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times called “Go Home to Your ‘Dying’ Hometown,” in which she said that being a “homecomer” made her a better, more engaged and less selfish citizen. In 2017, Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance argued that moving to middle America would save it, both economically and existentially. Lyz Lenz in Vox, however, noted that in some cases, only certain people — white, straight, and cisgender — actually are welcome to “go back where they came from.”
Ingraham notes some of this in the book, where he wonders whether the close-knit community made up of 93 percent white people would be quite as welcoming if he’d been black, which also made him reevaluate some of the racism he’d seen while growing up in upstate New York.
We spoke about everything that goes into making a cross-country move from a metropolitan suburb to a town where the nearest Whole Foods is 300 miles away, and why employers must embrace remote work if they want their employees to live happier lives (Ingraham was able to keep his job at the Post). And also why those who do make a similar move should take note: You have to pay for your own garbage removal.
This started when you wrote a blog post for the Washington Post on the best and worst places to live in America, and Red Lake County, Minnesota, was at the bottom of that list. Walk me through how that came about.
I stumbled across this data set ranking every county in the United States on physical characteristics that make a place a nice place to live. At the very bottom of the ranking was this little place in Minnesota that I’d never heard of called Red Lake County.
I Googled it to try to find some information to include, but I couldn’t. The county website had a calendar that hadn’t been updated in like, two years. Their fun fact — this was their claim to fame — is that they were the only landlocked county in America surrounded by just two adjacent counties, which is objectively hilarious.
I kind of threw that in a throwaway line about, “this is the worst place to live in America, according to this USDA ranking,” and we pubbed the story. Almost immediately, I started getting Minnesota hate mail, but they were very polite about it. Local media outlets started picking up on it. Amy Klobuchar was harassing me on Twitter or Facebook for half an afternoon.
Meanwhile, the irony is that you’re writing about this so-called worst place in America, but in the first chapter you talk about one commute in which you spend four hours trying to get to your office — in August, in Washington DC — before you just give up and spend a hundred dollars on an Uber back to your house.
My wife and I had 2-year-old twins. We were living in a 950 square foot row house. I was commuting three hours every single day for work. We had no time, no money, no space, and were trying to figure out what to do.
We couldn’t move closer to the city to the shorten the commute because the housing was too expensive, and we didn’t want to move farther away because I was already commuting three hours. There was literally no option for us in the metro area. I was on high blood pressure meds. I was on antidepressants. I was drinking a lot. It was just misery.
My mom was the one who finally suggested, “Why don’t you guys go pick up and move to that nice little town in Minnesota that you wrote about?” We laughed at first, but after a while we started looking at numbers about housing prices and commutes and things like that, we convinced ourselves that it would be fiscally irresponsible to not move to Red Lake County.
Why do so many people sacrifice their mental and physical health to live in cities?
It’s obviously for the jobs. Back in the ’60s or ’70s, living in big cities and metro areas, it worked out better for everybody, because yes, things were getting more expensive, but salaries were growing back then, too. But starting in the ’70s, salaries start to stagnate. From an economic standpoint, cities are a much better bargain for companies than they are for the workers who have to work there, who bear the brunt of all the commuting and the high cost of living.
I wish that as a society we were more open and ambitious about telework. There are so many jobs, especially white collar office stuff, where you don’t need to be there. A lot of employees are completely on board with this. They’re like, “Yeah, if my boss would let me telework, I would absolutely do it.” [But] employers are really timid about it. Workers will have to push for that.
So you make the move to Minnesota, and you find that a lot of the stereotypes are true: people were way more welcoming and neighborly in your small town than they ever were in Baltimore. Why was that?
In a small town, and especially the place up here where the winters are really brutal and there’s a real survival aspect to making it through, you have to have that social cohesion. There isn’t that political or economic infrastructure that might otherwise handle it.
And when you only walk by two people in a given day, you’re going to notice those people, and you may stop and chat. In a city you’re walking by hundreds of people every day.
A big part of it, you say, is that the trust is so much higher in Red Lake County than it is in cities because it’s 93 percent white and basically the biggest demographic difference between people are between Catholics and Lutherans.
That’s the complicated thing, right? Race is lurking behind every social story, and I honestly don’t know how it would’ve been if I were a black reporter. Or if, conversely, the place I ended up visiting ended up being someplace in Alabama with a very high African American population. It’s hard to do a counterfactual on that.
I mention in the book that I see a lot less overt racism here the way that I did in upstate New York. You don’t see a lot of Confederate flags or symbols that have white pride connotations. The Trump thing is very complicated, though. I do believe that not all Trump voters are racist, but that in order to vote for Trump, you have to be okay with his racism on some level or another. You have to be able to rationalize it away.
Because we are fairly privileged — we are white and middle class — a lot of his policy decisions don’t affect us. It’s not a life or death thing the way it is for many non-white people. I don’t have to confront my neighbor about his voting record if I don’t want to. And so I try to be empathetic about that, both in regards to my neighbors here and in regards to people elsewhere who are like, “I can’t imagine living someplace where most people would vote for a guy who’s locking up kids on the Southern border. I just couldn’t do that.”
How have your finances changed since moving from Baltimore to Minnesota?
Our mortgage now is easily half our Baltimore mortgage. Our yard is about three quarters of an acre, it’s just fricking huge. I don’t even know what to do with it. I’ve literally written articles for the Post about how lawns suck, but man, it’s nice to be able to take care of that slice of the environment and try to make it a warm welcoming to wildlife and to native plants.
How do you buy stuff? Do you use Amazon? Does Amazon deliver there?
Prime Two-Day shipping usually ends up being more three-to-four-day. You can just get the stuff you need on Amazon; we’ve got a little grocery store right here in town for basic stuff. To do real shopping, we have to go to Grand Forks, North Dakota, about an hour away, where they have Home Depot and stuff.
Have you had any unexpected expenses living in a rural area?
Oh, god, garbage. In Baltimore they just came and took your garbage for free. It was great. But here we had to set up a garbage service. There’s the one in town that does it and they only accept certain size bins, and we got the wrong size bin, so they stuck this message on [it]. God.
Those essential services — water, sewer, garbage pickup, and local taxes — those are all surprisingly higher than there were in Baltimore. It’s because you don’t have the economies of scale here, you have one little city government trying to do it all.
At the end of the book you begin to regret your choice to live far from a city when your wife goes into labor six weeks early. What was that like?
We never would have had a third child if we hadn’t moved here. We just didn’t have the time or space to do it. Briana got pregnant, and it was just plain old vanilla pregnancy up until six weeks beforehand when her water broke. There was no place around here that could deal with a baby that early, so they had to put Bri on an ambulance to Grand Forks, North Dakota.
It ended up turning out great; William is completely, 100 percent healthy. But that drive to the hospital was one of the most stressful things that I’ve ever done because I’m like, “God, I do not want to deliver this baby in a ditch in a cornfield.”
You wrote about the declining fertility rate earlier, when you argued that people want to have kids but don’t because it’s more expensive than ever to do that. Has it been easier in a rural area to raise three kids?
Yeah, one hundred percent. There’s the cost of living, obviously, which is the big thing. But the social support these kids have here — the older kids watch out for the little kids, and the community is heavily invested in its school, and it’s a small enough school where everyone knows each other. We found out after we moved here that my son Charles has autism, and everyone at the schools dropped everything and sat down with us to work through a plan. If we were in a bigger area with a bigger school, I would worry about him getting lost in the crowd or being branded as a bad kid and shunned to the side.
Obviously not everybody can just pack up and move to a rural Minnesota town, and more people are moving to and living in cities than ever have before. What do you think will solve the problems of city life for those who can’t or don’t want to make the move?
Even teleworking for a few days a week really opens things up. We actually considered moving way out to West Virginia at the end of the MARC line and I’d only go to the office for two days a week, but then I’d work from home for the remainder three. That way I’d have a long commute on a couple of days, but then I’d get the respite from it and that. In areas where there are those big rail networks, that might be something people can do.
Beyond that, there has to be more housing and there has to be better wages. And those are two huge problems. You compare so many of the problems that cities have — the crowding, the high cost of living — to the problems that the small towns have — not enough people, businesses are closing, tax base is shrinking — there’s a real need. You could solve a lot of this stuff by moving people from the cities and into these small towns. But like doing anything at scale, it’s difficult.
Do people point out that you kind of have a Midwestern accent now?
I think this is the way that I’ve always talked because I grew up in upstate New York. But I could be taking on more of an accent. I could be going completely native. That’s definitely a possibility.
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