13 February 2014

Preventing an American precariat

When people talk about a decline in mobility in the U.S., they usually mean social mobility. It seems harder than ever for those poor people not gifted with looks or athleticism to rise in class. I think David Brooks means social mobility too, but the immediate context of his recent New York Times column is a decline in geographic mobility. He perceives that people are moving from place to place less than Americans used to. Brooks attributes this in part to a declining faith in opportunity -- another way of saying social mobility. As he explains:

It takes faith to move. You are putting yourself through temporary expense and hardship because you have faith that over the long run you will slingshot forward. Many highly educated people, who are still moving in high numbers, have that long-term faith. Less-educated people often do not.

When people do move, they move from low-income, low-opportunity areas to equally low-income, low-opportunity areas.  Because they don't expect to find good-paying jobs, they look for places where rents are cheap rather than risk depleting their savings while looking in more affluent places where the jobs actually may be. Another sign of loss of faith in opportunity is an increase over the last quarter-century in the number of Americans willing to describe themselves as "have-nots." For Brooks this is an alarming sign of class-consciousness -- but of what class? A new specter is haunting David Brooks: the spectre of the precariat. The word is the clever neologism of a British economist: it suggests a pre-proletariat, or a working class defined by its precarious job security. Lacking faith in opportunity under the existing economic order, they are potential recruits for "protest movements across the political spectrum," as Brooks puts it. An idle lower class easily can become a dangerous class. What is to be done? Brooks closes his column with an unintentionally asinine and perhaps unintentionally revealing suggestion. While noting cogently that "no one response is going to reverse the trend," he dedicates his last paragraph to a proposal from the American Enterprise Institute that the government issue "moving vouchers" to the chronically unemployed. Since we certainly can't just give them jobs, we could at least make it easier for them to go where they might find some -- where Brooks says they can "chase opportunity." There may be a "jobs are out there" implication in Brooks's assumption that facilitating travel in search of work could restore Americans' faith in opportunity. But there may be a still-deeper implication. Encouraging the poor to relocate in search of work presumably would disperse concentrations of precariat and diminish the potential for social volatility in depressed regions. I could see why a Republican think tank might find that an idea worth paying for -- indeed, an idea worth taxpayers paying for. Somehow the government paying people to travel is better than the government simply creating jobs. Brooks himself may see a place for government job-creation, but highlighting the moving-voucher idea may reveal his real priorities -- it may reveal more of them than he planned.

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