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Work & Prosperity (Deep End)

It’s a shocking state of affairs that we’ve discussed before on the Deep End, but the fact is that America and Britain stand at the bottom of the social mobility league.

Perhaps this is what we might expect of class-bound Britain – but isn’t America supposed to be the land of opportunity?

The US is a continental economy free from the various barriers that still impede the free movement of labour across Europe. As Timothy Noah argues in an article for Washington Monthly, it is a freedom that Americans have a history of making the most of:

“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.”

He describes successive waves of internal migration, most of them economic in purpose:

“…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…

“:…after the Civil War, huge, downtrodden populations left mid-Atlantic cities like Philadelphia or Baltimore to seek the living wages offered in then-frontier cities like St. Louis and Chicago…

“In the early- and mid-twentieth century, the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South was a movement of tenant farmers fleeing Jim Crow for a chance at menial factory jobs in places like Cleveland and Detroit. More recently, the great flow in the opposite direction, from Rust Belt to Sun Belt…”

But 21st century Americans are staying put – despite the tough economic circumstances of the last few years:

“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… either stagnated or gone down…”

In the early 1950s, about 3.5 percent of all American households moved from one state to another in any given year. This proportion held up through the 1970s, and then started to fall around 1980. By 2006 interstate migration had dropped to 2 percent, and by 2010 to just 1.4 per cent, or less than half the rate of the early 1950s.”

Why should this be? Timothy Noah examines and rejects various theories. It isn’t because of demographic change or the growth of two-earner households or the impact of new technologies like broadband.

Nor is it because people are finding enough opportunities locally. In fact, to the extent that people are moving at all, it tends to be away from higher wage areas – the reverse of the historical pattern.

Noah explains this puzzle in terms of pull and push factors. Thus while the ‘pull’ of higher wages hasn’t gone away, it is now overwhelmed by the ‘push’ of unaffordable housing:

“The underlying problem… isn’t the price of housing per se so much as its relationship to income. Since 2009, when the recession ended, the median price of a new house in the United States has risen 13 percent, even as median household income has fallen by about 4 percent. That doesn’t pose much of a problem for a migrating architect whose income is already well above the median, and who is likelier to have existing home equity that he can transfer to another state. But for construction workers, for example, it’s likely to be a big problem, and a reason why they can’t easily move to where the best-paying jobs are.”

Consider a similar scenario in this country. A highly-qualified professional moving from, say, Liverpool to London to take a better-paid job might have to settle for a smaller house. But for an ordinary working man or woman, who can just about afford a modest family home in the North, there is nothing in the South to trade down to.

It’s all very well to tell young Americans to “Go West!” or jobless Britons to “get on their bikes”, but if they can’t afford to live where the best jobs are then social mobility stops dead.

17 comments for: America and Britain: Socially immobile because we are geographically immobile

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