By Jeffrey Polet
The New York Times recently published a comprehensive article on income mobility. The data clearly indicate that income inequality has been growing in the United States. There are many reasons, and it appears that the largest remain education and technology (without factoring in immigration). The effect, however, has been a separating of America along cultural and geographical lines, an argument made in great detail by Charles Murray in his essential book, “Coming Apart.”
Perhaps more important than the fact of inequality, however, is the problem of income mobility – that is, the likelihood that someone will move between income quintiles over the course of her lifetime, and, specifically, whether she can move up the scale. Such movement has long been thought of as essential to the American dream, the prospect of endless amelioration and the ability to make it big. Studies over the last 20 years, however, have indicated that such mobility is decreasing.
Michigan doesn’t score particularly well on the chart. Outside the deep South, the three midwestern states of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana score the most poorly when it comes to persons moving up multiple quintiles. Not surprisingly, North Dakota, flush in money from mining and fracking, leads the nation in mobility. Cities that have high levels of innovation fare well, while old rust-belt centers have done poorly, in part because they are hemorrhaging population.
Michigan’s economic problems are obvious at the surface: a published unemployment rate near 8.4 percent; a decade-long loss of over 1 million jobs; chronic underemployment; lagging markers in educational achievement; a sharp decline in population, particularly among the young and educated; higher than average poverty rate; an aging workforce with costly benefits; a landscape littered with empty factories.
Less obvious, but no less significant, are the fiscal problems: unfunded state government liabilities in excess of $66 billion, over $45 billion of which goes toward state employee benefits and pensions against $27 billion in assets; housing values that are only now starting to climb back from years of decline; increases in consumer insurance rates; significant comparative declines in per capita income; and other monetary worries.
Location, then, seems to matter. But not just any location. The possibilities of income mobility increase where there is a healthy and functioning civil society: sound schools, civic engagement, and intact two-parent families. This reinforces what conservatives have long known to be the case: Two-parent families are the single greatest protection against poverty, and the greenhouse for the growth of successful adults.
The sound-school prong presents enormous difficulties, for it is not clear what makes a school “sound,” and the history of educational reform in America suggests that schools may actually damage other forms of civil society. Schools, no matter how well-run, can never compensate for bad parenting, while good parenting can go a ways toward correcting bad schooling.
While economic factors matter, the fact that a child in Michigan is some 40 percent more likely to be raised in a single-parent household than is one in North Dakota goes a long way toward determining Michigan’s income problems. A Michigan child is almost 70 percent more likely to be raised in a single-parent household than her counterpart in Utah who, not surprisingly, has greater prospects for mobility. Michigan has three of the top 10 cities in America with a population of more than 50,000 that have the highest percentage of single parent families.
Conservatives have for too long counted on politics to address a range of social issues. But politics follow the culture, especially in democratic regimes. When Plato discusses “democratic man” in Book VIII of The Republic, he highlighted the decline of authority, intemperateness, and the dissipation of character. It is written in the eternal constitution of things, Edmund Burke said, that men of intemperate minds can not be free, and persons of dissipated habits can hardly be expected to better themselves, or their progeny.
Jeffrey Polet is a professor of political science at Hope College in Holland, and sometimes writes at Front Porch Republic. He is married with three children.