Several of you have sent along Timothy Noah’s essay about declining mobility in American life. Excerpts:
Indeed, until quite recently, what most distinguished Americans from other peoples was the high percentage of us who were willing to move from anywhere to anywhere to seek a better financial toehold. The original Pilgrims and Utah’s Mormon settlers migrated for religious reasons, but they were exceptions; most American migrations have been driven by economics. Already by the mid-nineteenth century, the descendants of Puritans had abandoned New England’s played-out farms in such numbers that the forests were closing back in, prompting Herman Melville to compare the landscape to “countries depopulated by plague and war.”
Noah says this rootlessness has been bad for culture (according to generation after generation of critics), but good for economic progress, including generating more equality and prosperity, as people have moved to where the jobs are.
In our own time, though, all of that has changed. Americans are moving far less often than in the past, and when they do migrate it is typically no longer from places with low wages to places with higher wages. Rather, it’s the reverse. That helps explain why, since the 1970s, income inequality has gone up and upward mobility has (depending on who you ask) either stagnated or gone down.
I thought that the Great Recession would account for this, but Noah says it’s not true. Mobility began to decline in the 1980s. Noah builds his case on figures showing that, contrary to what you might think, people don’t migrate from states with stagnating employment rates to states like Texas — the subject of Time‘s flattering cover story (behind paywall) this week — because that’s where the good jobs are. After all, it doesn’t make sense that they would move to a place where they stand to make less money. In fact, the outmigration from Los Angeles County to San Bernardino County has not been driven by better economic prospects — in fact, Noah shows, San Bernardino offers worse prospects than LA County — but because the cost of housing is so much cheaper there. Housing costs, Noah contends, are a major reason our labor markets are so deformed, and do not work efficiently.
I don’t know if his economic argument is correct. I’d love to know what y’all think. What interests me is his assertion that rootlessness has been bad for cultivating culture. I believe he’s right, though I concede it’s not at all obvious that a Faulkner is worth grinding poverty. On the other hand, recall the friend in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming who got emotional when telling me about the personal cost of pursuing better jobs, no matter what: rootlessness and alienation from family:
“Everything I’ve done has been for career advancement. Go for the money, the good jobs. And we have done well. But we are alone in the world,” he said. “Almost everybody we know is like that. My family is all over the country. My kids only call if they want something. People like us, when we get old, our kids can’t move back to care for us if they wanted to, because we all go off to some golf resort to retire. This is the world we have made for ourselves. I envy you that you get to escape it.”
There are different ways to measure wealth and poverty. Seems to me we should be aiming at some sort of equilibrium between stability and mobility.