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Why the Poor Get Trapped in Depressed Areas

It’s harder than ever for the poor to simply pick up and move.

Spencer Platt/Getty

In modern America, it’s expensive to be poor. If you have a car, it’s old and habitually breaks down. Often, there aren’t banking services in your area and you must live with high-cost alternatives. And in white working-class towns decimated by years of outsourcing, the jobs available don’t provide the kind of wages to break the cycle of poverty.

That’s not to say the situation of the American poor hasn’t preoccupied policy-makers and the pundit class. Recently, there’s been a bipartisan grumbling among elite wonks that the poor should just rent a U-Haul and leave their depressed communities if they want a better life. (Their dismissive attitude is presumably because America is extremely economically segregated; rich and poor hardly need to associate with one another.) Writing in the National Review, Kevin Williamson slathered contempt on working class whites for their irresponsibility; “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die,” he sneered. Conservative Tyler Cowen took a more academic view of the matter in a blog post, citing a research paper that showed children experience long-run economic benefits when their families move out of public housing. And for Mother Jones, liberal Kevin Drum mused on the localized effects of globalization on manufacturing-dominated areas and wondered about “the apparent unwillingness of U.S. workers to move when they lost their jobs.”

In each piece, the moral component is foregrounded: The working class refuses to move when things get tough because of either learned helplessness—“a conspiracy to give up,” Drum says—or because they cower in the face of difficult circumstances. (See David French’s condemnation of “how little effort most parents and their teen children made to improve their lives.”) Nobody in the pundit class, it seems, has attempted to actually understand how this country treats its poor—because while the suggestion to “go get a U-Haul” sounds simple, it’s an impossible task for somebody with no savings.

While moving to where jobs are more plentiful would be a good strategy for those in high-unemployment areas, we know that the Americans have less mobility—economic and geographic—than they did in previous decades. Geographic migration data from the U.S. Census Bureau finds that the percentage of Americans who move to a different state or a different county within the same state has plummeted by nearly half since the 1980s. As Justin Fox points out at Bloomberg, it’s even worse for white Americans with no college education, a rough approximate of the working-class whites derided for their supposed lack of initiative. Poorer Americans are now more likely to stay put. To put it simply, they don’t have enough money to move.

Personal savings rates have plummeted, especially for the poor. Most Americans have less than $1,000 in savings for emergencies. So we shouldn’t expect people who have an income hovering around the poverty line to have the funds to rent a truck, drive to an economically robust area (invariably with a higher cost of living), and put down the money for rent and a security deposit on a place to live. And that’s if they can pass the credit check most landlords require without having a job. The other option for those frozen out of a lease is a week-to-week motel stay, which is even more expensive. 

Then there’s the matter that we don’t make many social services—things like Medicaid, housing assistance, and unemployment benefits—portable across state or, in some cases, county lines. Many states have different eligibility requirements that present hardships for those who fall into the gaps, especially given the differences between states participating in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and those that aren’t. Re-enrolling for benefits and risking gaps in coverage aren’t tenable while unemployed; it prevents families from taking those potentially beneficial risks, especially if they have children. Moving to new cities without childcare figured out adds a similar burden.

This is a result of policy: We’ve made the safety net increasingly individual, and poorer Americans can’t save because their wages have been stagnant for decades. Moreover, as our safety net has become more rooted in families taking care of one another, it has become harder to leave. (Twice as many adults live in homes with multiple generations today than in the 1980s, according to Pew Research.) Without long-term care possibilities, many families get locked into staying put for the sake of their parents.

You can overlay any number of explanations on top of this: Inequality, an aging population, aid programs too tied to geography, or the high cost of housing in economic boom areas. But you cannot deny that the barrier to moving for poor families is a financial issue, not a moral failing. Nobody is shrugging and accepting that no jobs are available anywhere, as Drum would have it. It’s just that the people who need jobs have no access to them. This creates an inequality feedback loop. If only those with a bigger personal safety net can get to the areas where jobs are plentiful, it leaves behind those locked into more desperate towns, ensuring that they have bleaker futures. The good news is we can design policies to counteract that inequity.

At the moment we have trade adjustment assistance (TAA) for workers who lose their jobs to foreign trade. But it’s mostly limited to skill gathering. (Relocation assistance to get people into better job markets is part of TAA, but it’s very limited and only available for a segment of the population.) Enrico Moretti of the University of California, Berkeley, and Eli Lehrer and Lori Sanders of the R Street Institute have proposed broader grants to better allow for greater mobility for all Americans, rich or poor. This means unemployment benefits that scale up for higher cost of living, or expenses related to relocating and undertaking a job search. And as Moretti points out, lowering the population in economically stressed communities would help those who stay better access jobs because of reduced competition.

If we recognize the benefits to mobility, we should be more attuned to the barriers we place on it. Rather than condemning families for their laziness, we could condemn the policies that lock them in place, and work to change them.