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Justin Fox: It’s really tough to move out of a dead-end town

What works for the rich might work for the poor, too. A detour sign for Riverfront construction stands in front of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. The St. Louis Rams are moving back to Los Angeles.
What works for the rich might work for the poor, too. A detour sign for Riverfront construction stands in front of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. The St. Louis Rams are moving back to Los Angeles. The Associated Press

The National Review’s Kevin Williamson has written something about the U.S.’s small-town, working-class whites. It’s not very nice, and outrage is being expended over his claim that these people are struggling largely because “they failed themselves.” A sample from near the end of Williamson’s screed:

“The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.”

Other people may read that and get mad about the “vicious, selfish” part, not to mention the blame-the-poor attitude of the whole piece. They’re right to! I, however, cannot help but zero in on the last sentence – and nod in agreement. People in communities that have hit an economic dead end really do need U-Haul.

They surely need more than that, but moving away from poverty and misery is not in itself a bad idea.

It is an idea that helped build the United States. Immigrants crossed the oceans (and later the southern border); homesteaders settled the prairie; African Americans migrated to the cities of the North; all different kinds of people flooded into California and then Texas.

These people were moving toward opportunity, and the country is a bigger, better, stronger place because they did. Americans move a lot more often than people in other countries, and that’s generally good.

Since the 1980s, though, the percentage of Americans who move each year has declined. People who didn’t go to college are a lot less likely to move, especially across state lines, than those who did. This educational disparity among movers doesn’t appear to have grown over time (I did some checking on the 1970s, and it seems to have declined since then).

What has increased is the price of not moving. The gap in incomes between those who have moved across state lines at some point in their lives and those who haven’t has grown substantially since the 1970s, Scott Winship of the right-leaning Manhattan Institute found in a study published in November.

This income gap is especially big for those born into low-income families. So what’s keeping more people in economically struggling areas from renting U-Hauls?

One obvious barrier is a lack of money. UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti has pushed one possible remedy: Jobless benefits in areas with above-average unemployment rates could include “mobility vouchers” to cover the upfront cost of moving to where job prospects are better.

Another thing keeping people in dead-end towns is government benefits. Eli Lehrer and Lori Sanders of the conservative/libertarian R Street Institute argued in a 2014 article that “America’s decentralized welfare state” poses “a major barrier to mobility” because moving often means having to requalify and re-enroll to get means-tested benefits.

Even national programs such as Social Security disability benefits can discourage moving to a place with more opportunity because living expenses are usually lower where the economy is in the tank.

Finally, there’s the problem of where people should move. Some major metropolitan areas in the U.S. are creating lots of jobs. But many aren’t creating enough new housing to go with those jobs, in part because of zoning rules and anti-growth political attitudes.

The result is rents and house prices so high that they’re driving away even well-educated people with good jobs. I really don’t think we can blame the white underclass for that.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist writing about business. For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit www.bloomberg.com/view.

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