A colleague of mine lives in one of the best school districts in the region. We decidedly do not.
Based on conversations with him, I think our lives are kind of like two paths that diverged in the woods. We likely make comparable money, have similar school loans for similar degrees. We both have three girls. He and his wife prioritized a good school system, and I admire that. We prioritized saving money by living in a LCOL area, and I can’t fault us for that. The lists and feelings of all the ways each choice is exactly right and exactly wrong could stretch for days.
But today I am looking at an often overlooked benefit of the low cost of living area, one that cannot be overstated.
Last Tuesday, I had surgery. I haven’t told a lot of people about it (except the whole Internet, I guess), just a few other mom-friends. Of the four I mentioned it to, 100% offered to take the kids to activities, help out with child care, or bring over food. I texted my neighbor when I got home from the hospital, because we don’t have space in our driveway – “use ours anytime!” I went to a school concert on Thursday night, and felt like I needed air toward the end. I felt completely comfortable asking another mom to pick Sonya up from her classroom and walk her outside when it was done, because it’s the kind of thing I’ve done for other parents dozens of times.
When I talked about a basketball clinic in the next town over, it took 0.5 seconds before the parents set up arrangements to carpool on different days. Sonya’s best friend was staring down the barrel of staying at a dance competition with her older sister until midnight – I offered to let her come to our house until her mom could come home, and she’s done the same for me several times. That mom actually didn’t end up staying that late, and picked up her daughter after only a few hours – another mom had offered to take her older daughter home after the final awards ceremony.
“Let me know if Viv ever needs a ride to soccer, we go there on Mondays anyway.” “Hey, do you mind watching Sally for half an hour while I go pick up her sister?” “Callie just outgrew her cleats, does Viv want them?”
When I was talking to my colleague at the copier, he asked if I would consider moving to a better school district, not with judgment or prescription but out of curiosity. “No,” I said. “The kids are completely enmeshed with their friends and activities. A better school district wouldn’t make up for the upheaval, and I’m happy where we are anyway. Beyond that, I really value the community – it took us a couple of years but I always know I can ask any number of people for help with the kids.”
Oh, he said, that’s not what it’s like where they are.
He said that when he suggests carpooling, most people are not up for it. Everybody has their own space, and nannies if they need it. People are distrustful of each other. When he offered to set up carpooling with another parent that was juggling multiple dropoffs that had awkward timing, that parent declined – they didn’t mind waiting in the pickup lane for half an hour extra each day to make it work.
I’m not suggesting that all HCOL areas are filled with people who are focused on themselves and LCOL areas are populated with generous and kind people. However, my experience bears out what the research tells us: that people with fewer means are more likely to be collectivists (focused on the group) and wealthy people are more likely to be individualists. Because they can afford it. People with less money need to count on others. They offer help in exchange.
From the link above: “[I]ncreased socioeconomic development was the strongest predictor of increased individualism over time.” It takes a village to raise a child, they say, but the richer we get, the more we forget that.
In my mind, I cannot put a price on this community feel. It’s better for the environment, it’s better for the soul. While there are demonstrated advantages to individualism, as a mom raising young kids without a lot of family nearby who can help, the community sharing of responsibilities is enormously beneficial.
I thought when we moved to a LCOL area that we were sacrificing test scores in the name of the budget, but we have gained so, so much more.