University Enrollment-Georgia

A pedestrian walks through the Georgia Tech campus as the downtown Atlanta skyline looms in the background. Columnist Melissa Trussell looks at why more people don’t move to cities from rural Georgia in her column.

Sometime last year, I was contacted by a life-long Atlantan who was running for a statewide public office. She wanted my perspective on economic issues faced by Georgians outside Atlanta. She was kind, thoughtful and convincingly concerned about improving life for all Georgians. I appreciated her calling and caring.

But, one question she asked has played over in my mind many times in the months since talking to her, as I have regretted that I was not better prepared to answer her.

She asked, “If the jobs and resources are in cities, why do people stay in rural Georgia?”

Before you all roll your eyes and write her off as just a typical Atlantan, consider that 1) unlike many state politicians, she at least called to ask, and 2) in many ways, her question is valid.

Dr. Don Mathews recently wrote a series here laying out the economic state of rural counties bordering Glynn. A quick glance at the statistics shows a bleak picture of life in rural Georgia. It makes sense that someone from Atlanta would wonder why people choose to live in such a place.

Dr. Mathews went on to point out, however, that the story of rural Georgia is more complex than a few numbers can capture and that there are multiple plausible reasons rural Georgians are not flocking to Atlanta or other urban areas.

Since that conversation with the politician last year, I have asked her question in several rural Georgia settings, and one of Dr. Mathews’ reasons comes up every single time.

Why don’t we all move to Atlanta? Because we don’t want to.

This answer is the one I wish I had been better prepared to present to the politician. This answer is the one many from Atlanta just do not understand. For a lot of rural Georgians, this answer is more important than any story numbers can tell. For many, the choice to live in rural Georgia is a choice hard to explain in concrete terms; it is a choice of the heart.

Though I struggled to articulate it to my friend from Atlanta, it is a choice I understand.

I grew up in Washington County in rural Georgia, and even after I moved to Atlanta for college, I spent a majority of my weekends and all of my holidays back in the country. And, as often as I could convince them to come, I brought friends with me.

I loved a lot of things about the city life, but my heart is most at home away from the lights and noise and traffic.

Economists describe these sorts of preferences using what’s called a utility function. Utility is another word for happiness or satisfaction. Utility functions are troubling for some because what they measure is not often concrete and is rarely quantifiable.

Firms are simple. Their goal is to maximize profit, which is computable and directly related to a tangible production process.

Individuals are much more complex; we maximize happiness, and the only way to determine the process through which we gain happiness is to watch human behavior and work backwards to deduce a utility function.

Utility is derived from our preferences, and our preferences are largely a function of who we are, not of what we do.

Thus, a city-dweller may never comprehend why folks choose to live in areas where the numbers tell a pessimistic story. And trying to explain it to them is often futile.

You can’t quantify happiness. You can’t quantify home.

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