National Review writer Kevin Williamson recently took a lot of incoming fire for his article (behind a paywall) criticizing poor whites, who make up the base of NR nemesis Donald Trump. Among other things, he attacks their unwillingness to move away from their failing Rust Belt towns in search of better opportunity. Both Trumpkins and liberals went after him, not unexpectedly. And there is a lot to unpack from his article, but tonight I focus solely on his question of: why don’t poor people move from their poor towns in search of opportunity?
He just got unexpected help from liberal blogger Kevin Drum:
The effects of import competition [from China] are frequently local rather than national, and on average produce lower manufacturing employment and lower wages, along with higher unemployment. But out-migration from affected areas is nearly zero. Workers who are affected by an import shock stay where they are instead of moving to greener pastures.
And while Drum never specifically mentions Williamson or his article, his post surely cannot be a coincidence in a week when the political Twitter-o-sphere was obsessed with Williamson’s article, or at least when it wasn’t raging about the primaries instead. More:
On the one hand, you have the big macroeconomic effect of a growing trade deficit, which is outside the control of individual workers. On the other hand, you have an unwillingness to move when the local economy tanks, which is very much within the control of individual workers. Taken together, it’s almost a conspiracy to simply give up.
If that line had been written by Williamson, he would have never heard the end of it on Twitter. And yet, it would have perfectly found a home in his article.
A lot of people chalked up Williamson’s article to typical National Review, conservative-globalist, social-darwinian blaming of the poor for their own troubles. And maybe there was a bit of that. Williamson personally pulled himself up by his own bootstraps from his hardscrabble Lubbock, TX origins. Why can’t these other rednecks?, he seems to ask.
But there’s more to it, as labor-friendly progressive Kevin Drum, with his unimpeachable liberal cred, points out. What is with people’s torpor when it comes to the home town? Why can’t they do the sensible thing and pack up and move to where the jobs are?
I can speak with a bit of authority here, having grown up in suburban Kansas, with many of my friends in the lowest of socioeconomic strata. Besides the usual poor whites that are so emblematic of the state of Kansas in the national mind, I also knew a whole bunch of first- and second-generation Persian people who made the Kansas City suburbs their home. The KC Persian community was mostly founded by refugees from the Soviet Afghanistan war, and their struggles really mirrored those of their poor-white counterparts, as much as neither side would want to admit it.
Also, I personally was forced to move to one of the nation’s most expensive and competitive cities for purely economic reasons, correctly guessing that this was one of the few places I could have established myself at that time. My alternative was literally living in my parents’ basement, where I probably would be right now had I not made the leap. And with a kid in tow. So here are a few reasons why people might not make the at-first-glance sensible decision to pack the U-Haul:
- Free child care. Also known as “grandparents.” This one is huge. And sorely missed, in my case. Grandma ain’t gonna uproot just to watch the young’ins in a completely foreign town. Moving to NYC with no family here, is a hell of a lot easier if you have no such responsibilities. Want to go on a job interview? Pay for a sitter. Called in to work unexpectedly? Pay for a sitter. Go see a movie? Pay for a sitter. This is no small thing even for a doctor, let alone a member of the working class for whom it is simply not an option.
- Rent. The thing about hot labor markets is that they have equally hot rent spikes, as any North Dakota driller can testify. On a related note: rent is a hell of a lot more expensive if you have a family to worry about — which most working-class people do. If you’re young, single and mobile like Williamson was when he started with NR, then yes, moving to this town is an exciting adventure where you can rent a shithole walkup in the South Bronx, or else move in with roommates or some such. But if you’re looking at renting a true 3br on the island of Manhattan in a safe neighborhood with a good school for the sake of your son and stepson? Mom’s basement starts looking more and more attractive.
- Social circle. The siren song of familiar places and familiar faces, as Stephen King once put it. Imagine moving to a place where you know literally nobody. Who do you hang with? Who can you ask to give you a lift? Who can you bounce ideas off of? Who can you gossip with? Also, this is a hell of a lot more powerful a thing with the Persian community and their strongly interlocked extended families. Sure, a typical stone-hearted economist would scoff at this sort of thing. But most real-world people, especially young people, are terrified at losing their social circle. And for good reason, really. What good is a cinematic NYC adventure if you have nobody to share it with?
- The devil you know. Or rather: why move to such-and-such city without a guaranteed job contract, giving up all the above when you might wind up just as unemployed as before? San Francisco is a graveyard of stories of would-be tech-bros who tried to get a start there, and spectacularly failed. I’ve known people here in NYC that basically had the same thing happen — move here with no clear future, have the parental funds dry up, and be forced to move back home. How did that whole adventure make any economic sense?
In deference to the Kevins, I’m sure there are plenty of losers in BFE, KS, just plain too stupid to move and improve their lots. Ok. But there are a lot more people in BFE who have actually weighed their options and have decided that their Waffle House waitress job and being near their parents and their free childcare, and their cheap rent, and their friends, is simply worth more than buggering off to an unknown town and uncertain future for a maybe, possibly, anything-but-guaranteed better income. Gambling on a brand new town might be an easy thing for a member of the trust-fund class, but it’s a hell of a lot harder for a poor white (or Persian, or black) Kansas resident with literally everything on the line, including their children.