Last August, Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham wrote an article identifying Red Lake County, Minnesota, as the “absolute worst place to live in the America.” Almost immediately, outraged locals (and both U.S. senators) inundated him with texts, tweets and emails, and even invited him to see the place for himself. He took them up on their offer — flying in for a tour, which he then described in a September piece.
Earlier this year, in a made-for-TV turnabout, Ingraham changed his mind about Red Lake County. Frustrated by his three-hour daily commute and the high cost of living in the Washington, D.C., area, he and his wife decided to pack up their twin toddler sons and move to the absolute worst place in America.
They bought a house in Red Lake Falls (population 1,400), and in May drove halfway across the country, looking to build a more family-friendly life, at least for a few years.
Last week, I read an article Ingraham filed from his new home. The story focused on a study [PDF] published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that found that moves in childhood can have a negative long-term impact on a individual’s emotional well-being.
Earlier this week, I called Ingraham at his house in Red Lake Falls. I wanted to find out how he and his family were settling in — and ask him how he felt about the study’s findings and any potentially negative effect the move could have on his sons’ psyches.
Ingraham was funny, open — and more than willing to muse about whether, in his family’s case, the study’s findings held even the slightest trace of irony. He was a good sport.
MinnPost: Can you remind me why you decided to make the move to rural Minnesota?
Christopher Ingraham: We were living a hectic, stereotypical East Coast city life. I was out of the house for 12 to 14 hours a day, commuting for three hours a day. That’s 15 hours a week. My wife was working for the federal government. I’d see my kids for 15 minutes a day during the week. You can do that for a while, but the reality is it’s like having another part-time job. When you are living like that, when you get home after a long day at work you don’t want to cook or do anything. You just want to sit on the couch and veg. It’s not conducive to living a healthy family life.
MP: You also said that your family was starting to feel cramped in your house.
CI: Our old place was 900 square feet. It was a row house, all vertical. That’s fine for a young couple, but when you add twins, forget about it. Our place here is three times as big, with a ¾ acre yard. It cost half as much as our place in the D.C. area.
MP: So how’d you hear about this study?
CI: Shortly after I got settled in here, one of my editors sent me a copy.
MP: Ha ha. When you took a deeper look at the research, what did you think?
CI: The study was actually heartening in a case like ours. It found that there is a little bit of an increased risk for kids as young as ours, but those ratios are really low. It is not as huge an impact as the study found there is for older kids.
Also, the study found that different reasons for moving and different circumstances for moving have different outcomes on kids. Like a move related to a divorce or an eviction: That’s really bad. But if it’s a move for a new opportunity or a better work environment, the impact on children is different, more positive.
MP: So it’s not a one-size-fits-all result?
CI: What holds for a population doesn’t always hold for an individual. You can’t make blanket statements. You have to bring your own individual characteristics and situation into the analysis. The researchers only looked at moving in isolation. It’s important to look at that, but there are also a lot of other things that moving affects as well. For instance, living in a bad neighborhood is really bad for kids. So what if you moved to a better neighborhood? If you were able to put those two issues in balance, you’d find a lot of evening out.
MP: Were you living in a bad neighborhood?
CI: We weren’t in a bad neighborhood. Just in a tiny house in a lovely neighborhood.
MP: You’re working from home now, so you’re able to see your sons a lot more than before. That has to feel like a positive change.
CI: It’s great. But it’s new to all of us. I’m not sure yet what the impact is going to be on my mental health from dealing with two 2-year-olds for so many more hours.
I realize I’m incredibly fortunate to have the kind of job that allows for this level of mobility. At the Washington Post, we have a lot of reporters that cover Capitol Hill. You can’t cover Capitol Hill from Minnesota. But I cover data. You can do that from anywhere.
MP: How did the move affect your wife’s job?
CI: She’s taking a couple of years to be with the kids. That’s something she’d been wanting to do for a while. Economically, we wouldn’t have been able to afford that in the D.C. area.
MP: I’m sure you’ve heard about how it can be hard for newcomers to make friends in Minnesota. How have you and your family been doing so far?
CI: We’ve met more people in the first six weeks we’ve lived here than we did in the all of the years we’ve lived in the D.C. area. People are just stopping by to say hello.
My wife and I both grew up in upstate New York. We lived in Vermont for a few years before we moved to D.C. Take any of the Minnesota reservedness and multiply that by 1,000. People in Vermont were almost openly hostile toward outsiders. They shut their doors to newcomers. It’s been different here.
MP: Many communities in Greater Minnesota are losing their young people to the Twin Cities. How do things look for you in Red Lake Falls?
CI: There are young families in the neighborhood we live in now. Our neighbors have a couple of young kids just a few years older than ours. This is great. But my point of comparison is Vermont, where it felt like there were no young families at all.
MP: So studies aside, the move still feels like a good idea?
CI: Given our individual circumstances, moving is a much better thing to do for our kids for sure. The result is going to be net positive.