For the past year or so, I have been involved in an on-again/off-again debate with a number of conservatives of the “paleo” tendency, Michael Brendan Dougherty prominent among them, on the question of what to do about economically stagnant and socially dysfunctional communities. This has taken place in the context of the election year’s attention to what we euphemistically call the “white working class” (its main problem is that it is not working) and its attraction to Donald Trump’s anti-capitalist populism. The answer I have come up with — that people should leave those communities, if they can, and seek better lives for themselves elsewhere — has scandalized some of my friends on the right.
It shouldn’t. And, in the past, it didn’t: No conservative social critic ever blinked an eye or coughed up his cognac when the best advice from the right to the discontented and ambitious poor was to get out of the ghetto or the barrio, get an education, get a job, and start a new life and a new family in some more prosperous corner of the county or country. But the dead and dying and white towns of Appalachia and the Rust Belt are another story. “Why should they have to go elsewhere?” our freshly created populists demand. The answer is, Because the lives they desire are not to be had where they are; their communities, along with their families in many cases, are terribly sick, and the hard truth is that they’d be better off putting some distance between themselves and them. Some of the diseases of poverty are individual, but some of them thrive in congregation (gang violence is the obvious example), and the only treatment for these is dilution. A 2000 Brookings study of Jack Kemp’s famous Moving to Opportunity program found “striking” evidence that poor families who moved out of poor communities with help from the Department of Housing and Urban Development earned more, enjoyed better health, and saw their children do better in school than did families who stayed behind.
Mobility works. But Americans’ mobility has been declining since the 1980s. We are, in fact, now less likely to have moved recently than are Canadians. This lack of geographic mobility correlates strongly with a decline in income mobility (the ability to improve one’s financial lot). It is a compound stagnation.