In 1620, the Mayflower left England with 102 passengers bound for the New World and what they hoped would be a better life than the one they left behind.
And they kept coming. An estimated 30 million Northern Europeans would come to America’s shores in the 100 years between 1815 and 1915.
In recent years the influx of immigrants has shift from Northern Europe to Latin America, Africa and Asia.
The Great Migration
For much of the 20th Century millions of blacks abandoned their homes in the southern United States and migrated north and west in hopes of a better life. This Great Migration spanned from 1916 into the early 70s. Millions more fled the Midwest during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
In every instance, the motivation was the same. Americans were willing to risk everything for the hope of a better life for themselves and their children.
Why do some leave and others stay? After all, today’s racial discord and crushing poverty are all too reminiscent of early times and commentaries.
President Obama earlier this month talked about the intractable reality of America’s poverty, racial inequality, violence and incarceration in remarks before the National Conference for the Advancement of Color People (NCAAP).
Even during the Dust Bowl three-fourths of those living in the affected Great Plains did not move.
Why did some leave and others remain? I am not the only to grapple with this conundrum. The question puzzles some scholars, too, who note that internal migration has declined since 1980. But the research raises more hypotheses than answers.
Life is better elsewhere
We know that your neighborhood dictates how you will flourish. Harvard University’s Equality of Opportunity Project has documented that where you live as a child affects your prospects for a better life as an adult. Those findings have received publicity in various media including The New York Times and PBS New Hour.
Efforts to help
There have been some campaigns to encourage domestic migration. The Moving to Opportunity program under the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is supposed to foster improved opportunities. Some groups advocate vouchers to encourage poor families to move to neighborhoods with good schools. But many of these efforts have been disappointing.
I have wondered for years why more poor Americans don’t find their own Mayflower? Buy a one-way train, bus or plane ticket to some other American city and leave their depressing life behind.
Many of our ancestors were so desperate that they were willing to abandon the familiar, risk months at sea, and plant roots in a strange land where they often didn’t know the language, culture or another soul.
That took courage. Why don’t today’s poor take the same risk? Why would you stay in a community that holds virtually no hope? Where many young men of color see only two prospects—either a violent death or years in prison?
Yet it’s clear that even in the face of crushing poverty, social inequality, daily fear of violence, some people do not try to escape.
Why? I just don’t understand.