Guest column: Even in a beleaguered economy, culture affects success

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Charles Richards
Fri, 08/02/2013 - 4:00pm
This is very good. Classes have always separated themselves; people have always tried to move into the best neighborhood they could afford, and be as far away as possible from poorer, "bad" areas, but I wonder if Charles Murray is right when he says the degree of physical separation has gotten substantially worse since the 1950's. And, if so, how much has it contributed to our current social woes and inequality? And I would like to hear an illuminating explanation for the rise in single parent families. It flies in the face of maximizing the evolutionary fitness of offspring. Why are there so many illegitimate children, and children beyond the economic capacity of a family to raise well? Given the availability of highly effective, reasonably affordable birth control, why does this occur? It is one of the notable features of our age, that as poor nations become wealthier, their birth rate falls as parents invest in raising two or three children well rather than having five or six in the hope that two or three will survive and care for their parents in their old age. Greg Mankiw, of Harvard University, offered an explanation for the relationship between inequality and diminished mobility. He noted that if you had a chess club where all the members were roughly equal in talent and experience, there would be little correlation between an individual's won-lost record from year to year, and thus considerable mobility. On the other hand, in a chess club with a significant number of masters and novices, there would be a high degree of correlation between an individual's club rank this year and his rank next year. In other words, there would be a lot of inequality and very little mobility. Given that intelligence is highly heritable and accounts for a high proportion of the variation in success, perhaps this accounts for the diminished mobility. Of course, this is what separates liberals and conservatives. Liberals contend that people are roughly equal in ability, and that nurture or the environment accounts for nearly all of the variation in outcomes. Their solution is to provide an equal environment for everybody. They are horrified by the idea that, as part of nature, we are all engaged in the competition for evolutionary success. That was exemplified by President Obama's disparaging reference to the economy as "social Darwinism."
Edwin Lord
Sun, 08/04/2013 - 8:17am
Education gives you the opportunity to achieve income mobility. A four year degree from an university gives you the opportunity to seek a better employment opportunity, along with a wider range of employement opportunities. However, another issue impeding income mobility is segregation. In Michigan segregation runs deep and wide. between the income levels. I have travel quite a bit for employment opportunities from Washington D.C. to San Francisco, and have not encounter a society quite as deep in segregation, as in Michigan. The underground economy could be an offest from the lack of income mobility with more and more employees paid by cash only foregoing benefits dragging down the local economy.
Sun, 08/04/2013 - 7:10pm
How does Michigan promote education, traditional families, work ethics, or any of the other social structures that promote a viable community and individual growth? Is there anything the Legislature, the Governor, the communities do to reinforce these foundations of social growth? Or are all their efforts focused toward supporting those who reject education, traditional families, personal value and responsibility? Do the politicians in your area see those who create businesses as targets for political attack (taxes, regulations, or vilification for their ‘greed’)? Do they focus on the lowest common performance levels or do they promote programs that facilitate those with academic success? Does are media spend more time on those that are weighted down with problems or do they promote those means and methods used by those who succeed? When people talk about the growing income divide, do they talk about why the divide is growing, about how people can put themselves on the growth side or do they simply bemoan that it is unfair? When does it become okay to talk about how people succeed and teach others to succeed rather than simply morn about those who are suffering? When does it become acceptable to teach the parable about the ants and the grasshopper or about teaching people to fish rather than giving them the fish? When we lament about the problems why don’t we talk about those how people have overcome them or avoid those problems so others who want to change can learn how to change?
Mon, 08/05/2013 - 8:49am
Too many people simply do not care about improving their lot in life, they might not be completely content but they don't want to make the kind of effort that can change things for the better. In the Lansing area there are public service ads on local TV talking about how a college graduate can make a million dollars more in their life time over what a high school grad can make, I fear it just falls on deaf ears.
Mon, 08/05/2013 - 6:59pm
***, It isn't about being content, they simply have learned the rewards that come from education, from work, from sacrifice. People aren't content, they have more and more been trained to do less and ask/whine for more. It is the one instinct we each have at birth, manipulate to get what you want. Parents seemed to have succumbed to that manipulation rather than teaching how to do for oneself. As for the ads, they are all talk. What kids need to do is meet people that have made education work for them in ways the kids can relate to. They need to see and hear from people that are describing and showing how education has benefited them and still does.