The country is the least mobile since after World War II, even in economically depressed rural locales.
When she graduated from high school, Taylor Tibbetts was a bright star in this small Northern Michigan town. She won an $18,000-a-year swimming scholarship to Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., and departed for her freshman year with high hopes.
Once on campus, however, she felt overwhelmed by her courses and scared and isolated among students from all over the country with different values. After just a week, her mother reluctantly agreed to bring her home.
Three years later, sitting on a vinyl booth at her family’s pizzeria in West Branch where she now works, Ms. Tibbetts, 21, says she longs to live in a thriving city like Denver or Nashville, and regrets her inability to leave here.
“I can’t be the kid that just stays here forever,” she says.
Like a lot of small towns in sparsely populated American counties, West Branch, population 2,067, is in an economic funk brought on by the decline of manufacturing and farm consolidation. In recent years, a handful of retailers, a flour mill and a carpet shop have all closed their doors.
What is troubling about this rural town and many places like it is that while lots of struggling residents see leaving as the best way to improve their lives, a surprising share remain stuck in place. For a number of reasons—both economic and cultural—they no longer believe they can leave.