Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Why Won’t Working Class Whites Move to Where the Jobs Are?

Alec MacGillis (ProPublica) provided a timely article in Bloomberg Businessweek: Why Do Americans Stay When Their Town Has No Future?  He recounts the efforts of the workers at two coal-fired power plants to respond to the news that the facilities had been scheduled to be shut down.  His story unfolds in the area of Adams County, Ohio, with emphasis on the impact on the town of Mansfield.  Since the two plants provided most of the quality employment (union wages and benefits) in the area, most of the workers would be unable to find anything near equivalent as work.  One might expect most then to look elsewhere, but history tells us that many cling desperately to any hope that they can remain in the region where they have spread deep roots.  MacGillis provides this background.

“America was built on the idea of picking yourself up and striking out for more promising territory. Ohio itself was settled partly by early New Englanders who quit their rocky farms for more tillable land to the west. Some of these population shifts helped reshape the country: the 1930s migration from the Dust Bowl to California; the Great Migration of blacks to the North and West, which occurred in phases between 1910 and 1960; the Hillbilly Highway migration of Appalachian whites to the industrial Midwest in the 1940s and ’50s.”

“In recent years, though, Americans have grown less likely to migrate for opportunity. As recently as the early 1990s, 3 percent of Americans moved across state lines each year, but today the rate is half that. Fewer Americans moved in 2017 than in any year in at least a half-century.”

MacGillis focuses on one particular individual who grew up in the region and describes why he would prefer not to leave friends, family, and church.  He also points out that those who had been transplants from other places who came for the decent jobs the plants provided were the more likely to move on again.  A convincing case is made that leaving is difficult, but no conclusion was provided as to why moving might be more difficult now than it was a few generations ago.

MacGillis did tell the tale of one couple who found good work in Washington state.  After about six months they returned to Adams County after the husband found a job there.

“The position was nonunion and paid only $22 per hour, half of what he was making in Washington state and also much less than the $35 per hour he made at Killen Station [power plant]. He took it anyway.”

Their decision was attributed to wanting to live what they referred to as “the American dream,” which they defined thusly.

“The American dream is kind of to stay close to your family, do well, and let your kids grow up around your parents….” 

That particular description of the American dream was rather startling.  It suggested that there is something fundamentally different about people who believe that, and perhaps it was important to delve into this issue further.

The ease with which the white working class turned to Trump in the last election has generated a number of attempts to categorize this class of people.  Perhaps the most perceptive is Arlie Russell Hochschild’s study of the residents of Louisiana: Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  Her focus was not on why people didn’t wish to leave per se, but rather why their attachment to their home region was so strong that they were willing to welcome industries that would provide the jobs that would allow them to stay even though the industry would befoul the land and render it barely habitable.  Within that context she brought up the concept of a “least resistant personality.”   

Back in 1984, California wanted to build a waste facility that would provide a difficult environment for any living nearby.  It would be noisy, smelly, generate a large amount of traffic, lower property values, provide few jobs and would likely produce unhealthy levels of pollution.  The thought was to learn how to convince any who might dwell in the neighborhood that they would be enduring something that was worth the discomfort.  A study was commissioned to Cerrell Associates, a consulting firm, that provided a completely different perspective.  The report was written by J. Stephen Powell.

“The plant manager’s best course of action, Powell concluded, would not be to try to change the minds of residents predisposed to resist.  It would be to find a citizenry unlikely to resist.”

“Based on interviews and questionnaires, Powell drew up a list of characteristics of the ‘least resistant personality profile’:”

·         Longtime residents of the South or Midwest

·         High school educated only

·         Catholic

·         Uninvolved in social issues, and without a culture of activism

·         Involved in mining, farming ranching (what Cerrell called “nature exploitive occupations”)

·         Conservative

·         Republican

·         Advocates of the free market

These attributes applied to a great extent to the Louisianans of Hochschild.  They apply as well to the people of Adams County as presented by MacGillis.  The concept of a “least resistant personality” is interesting in that it supports the fact that there truly are different cultures in our country, encouraging the insensitive notion that there is a left coast, a right coast, and a flyover area.  It helps define the strength of the attachment to home that develops within a class of people, but it does not provide much insight into why that feeling is so strong.

Joan C. Williams scolds upper-class liberals about their ignorance of working class whites in her recent book White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.  Her lecturing becomes a bit irritating, and she goes a bit overboard in promoting the virtues of the working class (and the cluelessness of the elites).  Nevertheless, she provides some interesting insights.

“Middle class kids are groomed to fly away, and they do.  The working class likes to keep its young close to home.  Tearing a working-class person from the network that defines their life is a far heavier lift than insisting that a Harvard grad move to Silicon Valley.”

“Non-privileged people, whether poor or working class, tend to be more rooted than American elites.  Their lack of market power means that they rely on close networks of family and friends for many things more affluent folks purchase on the open market, from child and elder care to home improvement projects.  Moving would eliminate this safety net….”

Then Williams makes a point whose significance she might not have fully appreciated.

“At a deeper level, non-privileged people invest much more of their identities in their close-knit families and communities than do more privileged ones.  Poor and working-class people derive social honor from their reputations in communities of people who’ve known them ‘forever’.”

This concept of “social honor” was identified by Hochschild as one of the strongest motivators in the Louisianans she encountered.  It also provides a segue to a possible explanation why leaving a community can be so difficult for this class of people.

Keith Payne provides an important perspective in his book The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die.  The inequality Payne refers to need not be associated with the standard markers of income or professional attainment.  It is perhaps better understood as a status (social honor) deficit.  Poor people who are comfortable with their status within a community of peers can be quite satisfied.  A millionaire who has to deal with billionaires every day might be very cognizant of his/her lack of status and actually consider themselves to be “poor” because of it.

“….inequality is not the same thing as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it….Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not.  Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”

The health and longevity problems that are associated with poverty have been well documented.  What Payne is saying is that the same problems arise for people who are not objectively poor, but who merely feel poor because they suffer a status deficit.  Payne invites his readers to view status as rungs on a ladder and assign themselves a rung appropriate to their perceived status.

“We have to take subjective perceptions of status seriously, because they reveal so much about people’s fates.  If you place yourself on a lower rung, then you are more likely in the coming years to suffer from depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.  The lower the rung you select, the more probable it is that you will make bad decisions and underperform at work.  The lower the rung you select, the more likely you are to believe in the supernatural and in conspiracy theories.  The lower the rung you select, the more prone you are to weight issues, diabetes, and heart problems.  The lower the rung you select, the fewer years you have left to live.”

The people of Adams County followed by MacGillis are enmeshed in a community and have established a status level for themselves.  Were they to move to a new place where a job might be easier to find, they would lose that status and fall to a much lower state.  They might find themselves having to compete with those whom they had always considered to be inferior to themselves for one reason or another.  They might find themselves competing with a black or a Hispanic for a job.  Can they deal with that?  This sense of impending loss of status could be why it is so difficult for people to uproot themselves.

Is this focus on status being overly emphasized?  Perhaps not.  A number of studies have recently emerged claiming that Trump picked up a lot of white votes, not because of any economic promises he made, but because he told them he understood how precarious white advantage (status/social honor) over others had become, and how he hinted he was going to do something about it.

What then is different now from a few generations ago when people were willing to pack up and move long distances in search of work?  A worker today in Adams County moves to another location essentially as an individual with perhaps a spouse and children.  In the eras MacGillis referred to earlier, the migrations were not those of individuals.  They were rivers of people who left and sent back word of what they found, encouraging others to follow.  Preferred destinations were identified where people more like those they had just left congregated and a sense of community could be reestablished.  And with community, a sense of status could be quickly regained.  It was a different era.

So, there is one possible answer to MacGillis’s initial question—and that should be enough amateur sociology for one day.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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