Backstory and Setting

I'm forging a story that starts with our protagonists living in an absolutely awful urban location. Think near-post industrial revolution, without the regulations that eventually formed in order to protect workers, the public, and the environment. The boom of industrial and mining activity had created a ton of work, with citizens flocking and cramming into the city. A sudden leap forward in (crude but effective) automation technology has not only amplified the side effects of this industrial epicenter, but also dissolved many if not all of jobs.

The city is massive, without any real infrastructure. I have yet to finalize a government, though I'm leaning towards a small dysfunctional outfit where the elusive upper class ultimately has more power anyway. The city is geographically isolated from its surroundings, not impossible to pass but difficult. All of this has effectively seeded a new sub culture, with a unique communication method (for the purpose of this discussion we'll call it a new sub language), social codes, etc.

But there is hope: Our protagonists eventually decide to embark on the journey to leave the city for greener pastures.

What Lead to the Question

While trying to develop our protagonists motives for leaving I hit a wall: reasons to leave were abundant and obvious, but reasons why anyone (and everyone) would stay were much more difficult for me to grasp.


I started trying to imagine why anyone in this city would stay and was getting nowhere. I then started thinking about why people stay in the various locations around that world that, from my perspective, seem miserable or even life threatening. War torn nations without governments, areas with wide spread famine or barren lands, and oppressive dictatorships all harbor massive populations all over the world, and I can't seem to rationalize why.

I admit that I have a bias here - I can't imagine even living in a nice american city because of the cramped conditions and lack of freedoms. This bias is strong enough that its making it difficult for me to focus on a single reason for the protagonists to leave, as I'm blinded by just not wanting to be in the scenario at all.

Also, please don't take this as me being ignorant. I understand there are serious economical, physical, and psychological factors at play here that I respect, and I'm just looking for some insight. This will not only help me develop the people in this city, but also the protagonists journey out.

Before You Answer

The Twist

Not having the money needed to leave, while entirely valid and the most likely cause, doesn't entirely convince my rationalizing, uninformed brain all by itself. My brain says in that scenario I'd have enough drive to overcome any economic barriers in order to bail, and I'd genuinely like you to tell me why I'm wrong.

The Grey

This doesn't necessarily need to pertain to the most extreme cases - I see other countries around that world that aren't well off, but maybe still called third world or "developing". Are the reasons similar for these cases?

**EDIT** June 2nd 2016

Thank you everyone for the awesome points! I've accepted an answer but if there is more to add please keep the discussion going.

  • 9
    $\begingroup$ You say "please don't take this as me being ignorant". Well, without putting judgement or scorn into those words, this is the main reason people do not move. They do not know what life would be like there because they have not tried it for themselves. As @o.m. put it below: "the better the devil you know". Ignorance is the reason. What will it it be like? Will I have a job? Will I have friends? Will I survive and thrive? Will my children have it good? Answer: I do not know. Ok, staying here then. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 9:56
  • 19
    $\begingroup$ I have a friend who lives in Detroit. These days no one in their right mind wants to live there, but my friend won't leave, because moving is expensive, finding a job elsewhere is difficult, and uprooting the kids would be rough on them. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 15:32
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ I ask the same when people complain about their one or two hour commute and not being able to live without a car. There are actually people who move away from the city and their workplace, forcing them to commute for hours. Can you believe it?! $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 16:05
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In the movie The Brand New Testament there's a scene with a parable, that might be helpful to you. Not a literal quote, but from my memory: > On a beautiful sunny day a man sits on a park bench watching birds > and asks, "Why don't they fly away? If I were a bird, I'd leave the park and discover the world." Whereon the protagonist replies, "What's holding > you back? You are a free man." Of course the man never leaves and meets a different fate. I do not recommend the movie, but if you can get a hold of this scene, it's worth it. It's somewhere in the mi $\endgroup$
    – user21253
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 12:10
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ In short: not everyone eats grass. People have different preferences, and those change all the time with their own development as well as changing conditions everywhere. Some people value stability over everything - those simply will not move as long as they have a job, a home and something to eat. Some would go to a greener pasture, but are skeptical if the target really is greener. Some simply take pleasure in something you don't see, and don't care much for what you're missing in their place. And some are just optimizing their investments to improve their living in the future. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 7:17

17 Answers 17


There are a number of basic reasons the (vast) majority of people would choose to stay. There are a couple of other "flavor" reasons that you could optionally add to change "majority" to "practically everyone".

Standard Reasons to Stay

  • Social: Friends, family, and acquaintances are important to most people. These bonds become even more important when almost everyone is poor. The larger the family, the more they can work together to help each other out, but it also makes it harder for them to leave. "Poor Aunt Bess is too sickly to survive the journey!" "Uncle Roscoe has a good deal at the mine as a supervisor; he won't leave, and Aunt Sally won't leave without him, which means little Jeremiah, Beulah, and Skinny Tim will all stay, too." Etc..

  • Regional Pride: Even those without strong social ties will likely feel strongly about their chosen home, particularly if the decline due to improved automation is relatively recent (it'll be years before people stop reminiscing about the "good ol' days"). No matter whether they love or hate the way things are, the city is their home, always has been, and, for most, always will be.

  • Lack of Known Alternatives: You haven't provided much details on what other options exist, but even if there are better options, do the natives know about them? Is there regular communication from or about the city's neighbors? If there are news sources, they may very well be focused so intently on labor disputes, corruption in the leadership, complaints against the automation that is putting everyone out of jobs, and the various crimes and violence that likely spring up in such an environment, that news about the areas outside of the city will be practically nonexistent unless something is happening that will directly impact the residents (war, a sudden influx of immigrants due to a nearby catastrophe, etc.). This leads to an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality, and basic information such as how far other countries/cities/whatnot are may be limited to very specific categories of people (e.g. traveling merchants).

  • Financial: To elaborate on the questions you raised on this topic, for most people, they won't get the drive to overcome the economic barriers until it's too late. Lost your job, and can't afford to pay for your house? Sure, you might be willing to look to move. But you have a job, and it just doesn't pay enough to cover the bills? Most people will stick it out and hope things get better. This is where loansharks start stepping in, taking advantage of people's misfortune, and further tying them to their current living situation (sure, you could skip town while owing Tony No-Neck money, but that sort of thing is bad for Tony's business, so he employs some really shady characters specifically to track down deadbeats and bring them back, so an example can be made of them). Even if they avoid debt, by the time they convince themselves things are so bad they have to leave, the extra cost of transportation, particularly if they want to preserve their meager belongings, is going to be more than they can afford.

All of the above seem so likely as to be almost certainties to me, at least for the vast majority of the population. You can provide further incentive, if necessary, by adding in some or all of the following:

Optional Additional Incentives

  • Traveling Isn't Safe: It could be dangerous for any number of reasons: war, bandits, wandering monsters, wild animals, or even the layout of the land itself. Travel outside of the city may be the sole provenance of large, armed caravans for safety, which, of course, means added expense putting it out of reach of most people. Of course, with this option, your protagonists will need to be on the lookout for trouble, and have some way of handling it when it appears.
  • Indentured Servitude: When the vast majority of the population is poor, opportunistic individuals sometimes find truly manipulative ways to exploit that for their own benefit. Mines are particularly noted for this, at least in American history, so it will be a fairly natural fit since you mentioned mining plays a significant role in the city's economy. The companies house, feed, and clothe their employees... but charge them for these "services" at a rate that keeps them in the company's debt. It is not unusual for such companies to not even pay their employees real money, but instead use "company script" that can only be redeemed at their own stores, at rates far less favorable than real money.
  • Rumors or Superstition: Maybe it is safe to travel, but most people believe it isn't. Regions frequently have their own myths about what happens to people who are caught out after dark, and migrating from the city would certainly entail several nights under the stars. Even if Bigfoot isn't real, people still fear him, use him as a story to scare kids, and maybe even make money off of him (sell souvenirs, offer excursions to hunt for him, etc.). And besides... anyone who ever tries to leave is never heard from again! (Even if its just because they safely make it to a new home far from the city).
  • The Neighbors Don't Like You: Perhaps there was a flood of people emigrating from your city when the problems first started, and they caused so many problems for the nearest place of refuge that they've banned travelers. Of course, by the time they get there, it is likely too late for them to turn back, so the neighbors may have taken... additional steps. Maybe they make a point of bringing back those who don't take "no" for an answer, and try to relocate anyway (of course, a head is so much easier to transport than an entire body...). Maybe they are known slavers. Or maybe they've built a checkpoint at the only bridge between here and there. Regardless, this is one more situation that the protagonists will have to deal with... unless they've discovered somewhere else to go.
  • The Cartel: Trade to and from an industrial city is almost certainly very lucrative. So much so that perhaps the merchants who have worked out trade agreements within the city are very jealous of competition. They could employ a variety of methods of ensuring people want to stay at home, ranging from rumors to hiring bandits to ensure that those who don't pay their proper protection fees never make it to their destination.
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the only answer also exploring cultural reasons. Attachment to a homeland. National pride. Feelings of responsibility. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ Nice answer, some of these points would be further exacerbated by a language barrier. $\endgroup$
    – Brad Werth
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 6:44
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! I'm accepting this as it is a well rounded answer that addresses the question, and will definitely help with development. Highly honorable mention to Separatrix and Simba for making me realize I had tunnel vision. $\endgroup$
    – plast1k
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 16:14

"Better the devil you know ..."

Yes, conditions are awful. But they can obviously survive there. They know how to survive, how to get halfway drinkable water, how to get edible food. They are to throw all this away for the hope that it will be better elsewhere?

Friends and Family

Related to the previous point, they have social networks. Who will look after the children if a family decides to move? Grandma isn't getting any younger, either, and one of these days she will need full-time care. The first to move would abandon all that.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ If you add in a lack of folks coming back from the "greener pastures" saying that everything is great it is easy to see why people would choose to stay rather than explore the (somewhat) unknown. $\endgroup$
    – Jason K
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 13:43
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear#Fear_of_the_unknown Would play a big part in this too - especially if they didn't know anyone that's left previously. $\endgroup$
    – SeanR
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 14:16


also known as

The streets of London are paved with gold

The sort of environment you're talking about needs context. Firstly there are two types of people. The wealthy and the peasants. There's no better way of putting this, either people are rich and educated or if they're lucky they've had a basic education but otherwise gone straight into whatever industry the father worked in (on the whole, women don't work except as domestic staff). In the country that means farming or mining. In the city there are other options. Transport is prohibitively expensive, the concept of an ordinary worker commuting is unheard of, you need to live within a sensible walk to your work. Only the very wealthy have carriages.

Life in the countryside sucks, that's why anyone who isn't a landowner tries to move to the city. Life in the city sucks, but there's much more opportunity, more density of different types of work. There's actually hope there, rather than an endless search for what is ultimately only seasonal manual labour which has just been automated. Automation allows a very small number of people to run vast farms. You've dissolved most of the jobs in the city, well there's now nothing outside it.

No matter how bad your city, it will still have a steady influx of people from the countryside. The only people leaving the city for the countryside will be those who have become wealthy going to live on their newly purchased country estates.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I very much appreciate this answer - you have made me realize that it may be time to start thinking about the rest of the world outside of this city, as some context may help quite a bit with development. $\endgroup$
    – plast1k
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 16:08

In the Industrial Revolution scenario you're depicting, the problem with the greener pastures is that they're owned by someone else.

All the land is owned by wealthy landowners. So where are you going to go if you leave the city?

Those landowners protect their land jealously. They have tenant farmers who pay them rent to grow crops. You can't just find a patch of land and start growing things on it. You also can't go hunting for rabbits or fishing for salmon or whatever, because that's called poaching, and the authorities will really come down on you hard for that one.

Even the untamed wilderness and deep forest areas are owned by someone, and even when they're not actively utilising the land, they still generally have gamekeepers and wardens employed to stop random wanderers from helping themselves to the bounty.

Your protagonist effectively makes himself a fugitive by trying to live in the wild. He can't settle anywhere; he has to keep himself hidden from the authorities; feeding himself without getting caught is a challenge (especially in winter). In short, those greener pastures really aren't going to be as much fun as they sound.

And a mass exodus from the city would simply never happen: the bulk of the population are either too law-abiding to consider it, or else they're too scared of the authorities, or else they simply don't have the life skills to rough-it in the wild any more. No matter how bad the city is, trying to get by in the open countryside would be an even harder challenge for most of them.

  • $\begingroup$ This is very true - and something I did not think of while stuck focusing on this city. Thank you this is helpful. $\endgroup$
    – plast1k
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 16:09

A few reasons come to my mind.

  • Who repairs Robo? You say that automation replaces most of the jobs,(I'm assuming this means robots) but there has to be people around to repair these robots and it is more than likely that the higher classes wont want to do this.
  • Who digs holes? Again I assuming that the robots are similar t car-building robots, not too complex. This means that they would not be able to efficiently mine in damp caves. And again higher classes wont want to do this.
  • Shoot people for money. If this government functions as a modern equivalent to city-states, they would need a military and a simple mandatory military service that provides life essentials would make a large portion of the lower class stay.
  • Things might get better. Many people likely find their lives already well-planted and think if they just stick out a little longer, things will get better and like Detroit they are unlikely to.
  • Everywhere else is just as bad. They may or may not have been brain-washed into thinking places elsewhere are worse. I cannot confirm.
  • There's nothing else. Again they could have been told from birth that there is nothing else outside of the city, this is what Veronica Roth of Divergent did, so can you!
  • They cant leave. Perhaps the government keeps them there because EVILLNESS FOR THE SAKE OF EVIL!!!
  • $\begingroup$ Your last point reminds me of Fahrenheit 451 where everyone was on the government drugs and television. $\endgroup$
    – user21289
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 14:47

Money is actually a multi-part problem.

If you have no assets, then there is nothing too much stopping you leaving. Think of small dispossessed farmers in the Great Depression, for example. Travelling costs money, but after travelling you're no worse off than you were.

If you have a house or flat though, you have an investment tying you down. If it's in a bad neighbourhood, chances are you either won't get back what you paid for it or you won't be able to sell it at all. If you don't have a mortgage then you could write that money off, but then your chances of getting enough money together again for another property are low. If you do have a mortgage, things are even worse - if you write it off and the bank forecloses then you will never be able to get another property (or at least not until your kids are long since grown).

That's purely financial. Having your own house or flat may also be a personal thing - it's a dump, but it's your dump. It's hard to leave somewhere if you're emotionally invested in it.

If there's enough push then most people will leave their homes. Think Syria. But if there isn't such an overwhelming incentive then a lot of people will stay. Think Detroit.

You have just put a contradiction in your scenario though. If the city is geographically isolated, where did all these people come from who have flocked to the city? Something's not right there.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Last paragraph: Companies needing workers help transporting them to the city. Companies firing workers have no incentive to help them get away. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 8:47

Living in a slum is a known quantity to you, you've lived there all your life, you understand how it works, you figured how to make the better of it. It's not ideal but you've got your life under control. For starters, changing environment means going through all of it again, which is enough of an hassle for probably most people.

But the main course is that you don't know how much better or worse that other environment would be. The pasture always look greener somewhere else, but in reality you have no idea if it is actually better or not in the long term. So why risk what you currently have for something you may not get?

If your city has plentiful of cheap robot labour, that begs the question: what happens to other cities without cheap labour? Either their economy collapse because they can't compete, or they focus on high-tech industry and generally stuff that requires actual humans with college degrees. Realistically, in both cases there's a non-negligible chance your situation won't be better or will be much worse.

There's also the fact immigrants aren't welcomed everywhere, except when they are filthy rich, extremely smart, and/or world famous. So maybe you don't want to deal with that.

What would push people over the edge and convince them to leave would be if their safety is at risk. There could be a war and they don't want to eat artillery shells or suicide bombings. There could be a dictatorship that arrests people for having opinions. IRL, it's a major reason why people risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to come to Europe. So you also have to avoid that.


In real life, living in a 3rd world country, the reasons people say they don't go to better places are pretty straightforward:

  • a plane ticket is expensive, and you simply don't have the money to go and be unemployed there;
  • any developed country has a very high bar for accepting immigrants to work there;
  • people wan't to live near their family and friends;
  • the language barrier

Negative circumstances are usually not enough to make people leaving their city.

People need some kind of utopia or vision to go out to the "greener pastures" and found a new settlement based on that. This explains why only small groups will go to an exodus first. It will become a big wave only when other people hear of fantastic success stories in the new settlements.

Note also that life on the "greener pastures" is hard. The new settlers will have to work hard to survive and build their new homes, and backlashes from natural disasters and lack of food or water will happen, since they don't know the new terrain well.

You can learn from historic examples of emigrations like the pilgrim fathers, the Mormon treck to Utah, or the Migration of Jews to Palestine.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the research pointers. I had forgotten to ask for them in the question. $\endgroup$
    – plast1k
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 16:26

There are plenty of reasons to stay. First and foremost though, they have a home, be it a house, apartment, shanty hut. They might even have running water and electricity.

Furthermore most people there are city folk, and haven't a clue how to be self sufficient. As bad as the city is, there is probably still a place to get food.

If there is a school for the kids, they don't want to risk their education by leaving. If not, then maybe they are so poorly educated that they don't know what they will find once they leave, or where they should go.

As o.m. stated in his answer, all the family and relations live here, and people don't wish to abandon them (or be separated from them)

If the city is isolated as you say, the situation is probably the same for all citizens. And with the bad infrastructure, there are no decent roads or transport methods to get out of there, and as such not only would it make leaving more difficult, but it would also mean visiting other places would be difficult - this means that there would be a reduced likelihood that people would even see other places and be inspired to move for a better life.

You could introduce more fantastical elements depending on the genre of your work. e.g. The city's people as a whole have an inherent fear of the dark or maybe believe that vampires/ghouls/etc. lurk in the protection of dark outside the city, but the city itself is well lit at night. (Obviously the mines were well lit when they were open!)


It sounds like you have put yourself in a real bind here. From what you have described, it doesn't sound like any sensible person would want to stay, especially if they knew what the 'countryside' looked like before they migrated. With the history of human migration (europeans moving to the United States in the 18th and 19th century, or the current migration crisis in Europe) I think it is hard to argue that people wont try anything to get out of a desperate situation like this.

One question that really springs to mind is: Does the city even want people there anymore? It sounds like your story needs 'the crammed city' to work. In that case you should figure out the motivation of the government or the factory owners or whoever for not letting people get out of the city.

I can think of three possibilities, each with a problem:

  1. People have just enough hope that they can advance through some sort of system of of this squalor, be it education or hard work. A lot of slave societies (like Rome or Caribbean plantation colonies) had some way for slaves to earn their freedom and that helped to keep the 'unpleasantness' of daily life from becoming mutinous feelings. The main problem here is that you are not dealing with overworked people, but people who cannot find employment, and they are in a different mindset.

  2. People can't leave, which could be caused by the government preventing them from leaving or spreading misinformation about the 'greener pastures', so that people don't want to go back. The main issue here is why would the government want to keep people at the city, since they seemingly don't need them?

  3. Maybe there is something more sinister going on, like a social grand experiment or something along those lines. The problem with that is that it will move the focus of your story away from your protagonist and on to solving the 'mystery', which sounds like it wouldn't serve your story well.


Your bias is the perfect answer.

Humans (assuming were talking about humans here) have a single powerful and dangerous trait. It's, at the same time, the thing that makes us incredibly powerful, and ultimately self defeating. We can adapt to anything

Your looking at the outside of your horrid inner-city setup going "Man that is awful! I can't stand living like that. I would so move to a better place!". However, if you grew up there, lived there, and socialized there, you wouldn't find it awful, you would find it comforting.

Here are some examples;

In "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" the reporter from New York, has to set a tape player, playing city sounds (traffic and what not) to feel comfortable. He also has several run ins with "odd" people, that the towns people think are more then normal.

In "Final Fantasy VII" AVALANCHE don't want to leave their under city slums setup, they want to make it better. (great now I have the fight music stuck in my head)

In real life there are people that like the city and people that like the country. Both seem to be opposed to the points the other has to make about why their setup is better.


Below are some factors that different people may have, depending on their status and personality.


Fear drives humans to do the opposite of what is logical. Fear keeps you rooted in place, when everything else is telling you to leave.

Perhaps that fear is brought in by the harsh conditions of leaving;

"I'll never make it. The mountains are too cold to survive a night. I have no money for food to survive the three days journey to the other side."

Or that fear is from militarian rule by the higher social class:

"Justin tried to leave. He got just outside the walls; we could see him sprinting for the forests. Next thing you know, he was stumbling, and there were cracks of thunder as the bullets whisked past him. One caught him right through the chest, and his body was left for the wolves."

Or even exile:

"If you leave here, you may never return. Should you come back, you will be executed on sight. Your worldly goods will be forfeited to the City. Do you still wish to renounce your citizenship?"

War, with distinguishable traits for each country. (Racial or language based)

"I'd leave the city Ziis, if only I could. But where would I go? I'd be a fugitive here, and those green-skinned rats from Kazamana would kill me on sight.

Religion and world views

Just as humans have wants, they also have needs, and Religion/Worldy Views are no different.

Perhaps they believe they need to stay to worship their deity properly. Or that they're helping appease their gods, even if they remain in poverty.

For some, putting their own needs and wants above the wishes of their god is important enough for them to remain where they are. For examples, look at any religion.

Some go to church on Sundays. Others make a trip to Mecca yearly. Some go underground and worship.

"If I abandon my city, Jrin will be angry at us. I don't want to anger the god of war! He'll smite me and my family!"


Why leave when you feel you can change the world?

Some of the more stubborn would probably stay because they think they can change the system. Putting forth effort to reform rather than flee, to confront rather than abandon, is much more viable option. To some, leaving only strengthens the 'enemy' giving them more incentive to expand their influence. Give them too much space, and they'll swallow the world whole. To these people, there's no place to run to that won't be the same.

Once you've run as far as you can, all that there is left to do is fight. These are the people that revolt and sabotage the upper-class eventually.

Reminds me of the Hunger Games books, or Robin Hood lore.


The system works for them. Regardless of whether they're low-class bandits, or corporate thieves, the system of government and societal standards work for them. While others around them wallow in filth and hard labor, the people that exploit the system benefit from having to do less work, earn more, or thieve their way into power.

These people could buy themselves the luxuries without the cost meaning much to them. Why would they leave? The world serves them.

"Leave? Are you insane, boy? I have everything I could ever want here! Food, Wine, Women, you name it! Leave....ha!"


Freedom of movement just got granted

IMHO this is the most sensible reason for your protagonists to want to move. The couple of others I scanned sounded too modern/20th century.

In England, freedom of movement got enshrined in the 13th century with the Magna Carta. In continental Europe, it came much later. States with the most reactionary regimes allowed it as late as the 19th century:


The serfs of Russia were not given their personal freedom until Alexander II's Edict of Emancipation of 1861. At the time, most of the inhabitants of Russia, not only the serfs but also townsmen and merchants, were deprived of freedom of movement and confined to their places of residence.

As such, it's not that they didn't want to move - it's that until recently they simply couldn't. Throw in some harsh laws to prevent vagrancy for good measure, and your protagonists had excellent reasons to stay at home (until now).

  • $\begingroup$ FWIW, the movement rights in the Magna Carta weren't universal. The last royal bondsmen in England were emancipated by Elizabeth I in 1574, although AFAIK she was putting the formal end to a system that was not practically enforced. Some tenants still owed fealty (other than to the crown) until at least 1660, although again this was mostly in name only. So England represents a gradual process of moving away from feudal serfdom over centuries, with the law for the most part running behind common practice. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 18:14

There are already a bunch of answers with good information. I won't repeat them, but let me add some additional points.

One: Your idea of a good life and someone else's idea of a good life are not necessarily the same. In at least two ways:

One-A: For people living in 21st century Western countries, clean water and heat in the winter and available medical care and so forth all seem like basic necessities. But to people two hundred years ago, these were almost luxuries. Heck, lots of Westerners think of broadband internet access and good cell phone coverage as human rights. These things didn't even exist when I was a boy, and we didn't consider ourselves to be enduring horrible suffering because of their absence.

One-B: People have different tastes. Like you say that you wouldn't want to live in even a "nice" American city because you don't like crowds and all. Me either. I grew up in New York and I moved away once I became an adult because I didn't like the crowds, the dirt, the crime, etc. I now live in a town of 20,000 or so, and I know there are people who consider this also way too crowded, and who would prefer to live in Wyoming where it's 100 miles to your nearest neighbor. But on the other hand, there are people who love to live in big cities, who love crowds and noise and think of them as exciting.

Don't fall into the trap of assuming that everyone else thinks just like you. On this very subject: When I was in college I took a psychology 101 class. The textbook had a chapter on decision-making, in which the author gave as an example that if one of your friends got a job that paid a lot of money and that was in a small town in the southern US, that you would know that obviously he was taking the job for the money; but if he got a job that paid a lot of money and that was in a big city like New York or Los Angeles, you wouldn't know why he took the job because there would be many good reasons for taking it. I laughed at this example. The writer not only just took it for granted that it was better to live in NYC or LA than in a small town in the south, but he assumed that everyone else in the world would agree with that preference. What made it doubly absurd was that this came from a psychologist, supposedly an expert on how people think, in a section of a book discussing how people make decisions. And it just absolutely never even occurred to him that other people might have different tastes than he did!

My point being: I look back at New York City and think, "Ugh! Crowded, dirty, noisy, crime-ridden, uncomfortable place. I'm so glad to be out." But others look at New York city and think, "Wow! Crowds! Noise! Excitement! I'm so glad to live here."

Two: People may not have practical options, or at least not see them. It's easy to say, "Hey, why don't you move away from that terrible place?" But if the person has a home and a job, they are at least making do. If they moved someplace else, could they get a job there? Where would they live?

To me and I guess to you, working in a Victorian-era factory sounds horrifying: hard work, dangerous, etc. But to people at the time, it was often a step up from their alternatives. We have this romantic view of life on the farm, picturing farmers sitting under a tree enjoying the fresh country air. But in real life, for most of history being a farmer was being one bad growing season away from starvation. Sure, work in a factory was hard. But work on the farm was hard too.

In practice, in the 1700s and 1800s a lot more people left the farm to go work in the city, then left the city to work on the farm. Maybe some of them were fools who didn't know what they were getting into, but at some point they must have know the relative merits, and decided the city was better.


Several reasons occur over and over again:

  • Incapability. You say, "My brain says in that scenario I'd have enough drive to overcome any economic barriers in order to bail", but that's before you've tried a few times and been kicked in the teeth every time. Presumably you aren't a billionaire entrepreneur. Tell you what, if you can "overcome any economic barrier", no matter how high, why don't you just become one to prove the point? ;-) Look at what happens to refugees from wars -- the majority of the time they face hostility, physical walls and fences, inferior rights to those of "nationals", and it frequently takes a generation or more to actually benefit from having left a bad situation in their country of origin. Most people living in "bad" places cannot simply move at once to the best place they know of and get on with life, even if they decided they wanted to.

  • Different priorities. The grass may, objectively, be greener on the other side, but not everyone values grass colour over all other concerns. Things like family connections, national pride, class (inverted) snobbery or personal taste can all play a part here, meaning that my crowded slum is better for me than your airy suburb.

  • Imperfect information. They might not realise just how much better things are elsewhere, or they might have been told but not have sufficient grounds to believe it.

  • The endowment effect. There is a common psychological bias in humans to rate things they have more highly than things they do not have, merely because of having them. This plays closely with "different priorities"

  • Risk-aversion. A potentially-rational version of the endowment effect. I might genuinely prefer to have a 99.9% chance of staying where I am, over a 60% chance of improving my situation but a 40% chance of something going wrong and I'm worse than I started. Being unemployed in a region where you know people and have some kind of housing arrangement, generally is a better prospect than being unemployed in a region where you know nobody and have nowhere to stay. So until you actually secure a job/life elsewhere, or believe that employment is plentiful where you're going, moving really is a significant risk of just making things even worse. The fact the streets are cleaner and less crowded doesn't mean you want to have to sleep on them (or that you will be permitted to. If the place is clean and uncrowded that may well be because undesirables are arrested for vagrancy and moved along).

In practice, there is a significant divide in much of Western society, between the belief that some people are extremely poor because the political/economic system as currently operated distributes resources so as to leave some people poor, and therefore whoever comes last in the race (for example whoever started out furthest behind) has to live somewhere awful because there are not enough nice places for everyone; vs the belief that the system is an effective test of people's virtue and capability, with those who are virtuous and capable becoming or remaining rich, while those who are poor have only themselves to blame for failing to take the many opportunities they have had in their lives to become rich.

Of course many people believe both to different extents, but the divide becomes apparent when different explanations are applied by different people to a particular situation. Just ask a left-wing and a right-wing politician about welfare, sit back and enjoy.

It would seem a lost opportunity, in fiction, to make either of these be the whole undeniable truth of the matter for this situation ;-) However, if there are rich happy people in one place and poor unhappy people in another place, with no physical wall in between them, then it's because something in politics or economics is determining who goes where. And the system must have teeth: something bad must happen to those who just decide one day they can overcome any economic barrier through sheer willpower, or everyone would be doing it. Possibly they get arrested for burglary when the economic barrier in question is somebody's second-story window in the middle of the night!


Racial Conflicts

If, everywhere but this city, the people who live there are persecuted, they would rather live a poor life there than no life at all.


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