Paul O'Connor: Cultural divide signals the end of mobility
By Paul O'Connor
Capitol Press Association
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Rural Americans feel “trapped” in their communities, stuck in unfavorable financial situations but unable, for both practical and lifestyle reasons, to move to more economically vibrant areas — so says a fascinating article in the Aug. 3 edition of The Wall Street Journal. While the story does not mention North Carolina, its message is one our political leaders should consider.
When faced with a sluggish local economy, Americans have always packed up and moved to find more opportunity: Think the great migrations, westward in the 1800s and again during the Depression, northward during the Industrial Revolution and southward as the industrial belt rusted.
The Journal article used both interviews and statistics to demonstrate, however, that American mobility is now at a post-World War II low point.
Mobility has stalled, the Journal says, for many practical reasons and one new one: the cultural divide.
The practical reasons involve higher living costs, state licensing rules and financial support networks.
The cultural divide has created an additional way-of-life barrier.
The Journal told stories of rural Americans who tried to attend college or take jobs in more prosperous and more densely populated areas only to find they could not handle the different social and political values. In some cases it involved greater racial and ethnic diversity than existed back home; in other cases, the problem was community values on issues like gender rights or religion.
We often think of our cultural divide as something cooked up by political opportunists who use it for partisan advantage. But the Journal says it runs far deeper.
This divide is getting notice. J.D. Vance, an Ohio lawyer who grew up in a dysfunctional family with roots in Kentucky, has written the bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy, from one side of this divide, on the social and psychological factors that handcuffed his community, Appalachian whites.
Vance, who is only in his early 30s, recalls childhood friends who had opportunities to succeed but who felt so crushed by a negative culture that they couldn’t believe they ever would. So they didn’t even try, and then they blamed it on others.
Vance’s book focuses on Appalachia but reads like the story of inner-city America, a place where hope is lost, where people abandon the thought of escaping poverty before they even examine how the opportunity might be there.
The Journal’s story makes that same connection.
We have a divide where rural folks won’t move to where the jobs are and that leaves city employers struggling to find enough workers. This isn’t healthy for the economy.
It’s also not healthy for the nation’s political life. National trust, according to social polling, is at an all-time low. We have been convinced that we cannot trust each other, thus destroying the kind of political unity needed for a nation to succeed.
Politicians have two challenges ahead. The first is to stop their divisive politics. Waging a culture war against those segments of the population that oppose you is not helpful.
The second challenge is to boost the economies of rural areas. In North Carolina, we regularly talk about this, but the divide keeps growing. It appears that the current legislative strategy for reducing the urban-rural prosperity divide is to punish the cities and bring their economies down.
That’s not helpful. North Carolina needs a strategy for elevating rural economies so that the people who live in rural areas and small towns, and who want to stay in those places, can do so.