Thursday, March 30, 2023
March 30, 2023

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Jayne: System hobbles American dream

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

Moving is ingrained in the American DNA.

Upward mobility is a foundation of the American Dream. “Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country,” newspaper editor Horace Greeley famously urged in 1865. Westward expansion, The Great Migration and the Dustbowl Migration have been defining epochs in our history.

The quest for new lands and newfound freedom is even what first brought European settlers to this continent. While the genocide and colonization that accompanied some of those movements are certainly worthy of discussion, for now we are focusing on the American desire for movement and exploration.

Whether or not this is unique to the United States, I don’t know. But Americans long have been willing and eager to set out toward new frontiers.

Which makes a new University of Virginia study by Nicholas Buttrick and Shigehiro Oishi so interesting. “Americans, it seems, are finding themselves increasingly locked into places that they wish to escape,” the psychologists write.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data cited in an article at, about 20 percent of Americans would move annually during the years from the end of World War II to 1970. Since then, the rate has steadily declined, reaching about 10 percent in 2020.

Although statistics from before the mid-20th century are sparse, this reflects a long-term trend. Buttrick and Oishi write: “Throughout the 19th century, as many as 40 percent of Americans may have moved year over year. For example, in one Illinois county, only about 20 percent of households living there in 1840 stayed to 1850; in a different Ohio city, only 7 percent of people voted in both the 1850 and 1860 elections in the same district.”

The decline in physical mobility is not necessarily a bad thing. On one hand, it reflects increased comfort and security, which is the whole point of a developed society. But as Vox describes the gist of the study: “When people move less, it affects culture. Less dynamism, increased aversion to risk, suspicion of outsiders, cynicism, unhappiness.”

There is a difference between comfort and complacency.

That is a lot to unpack, more than can be managed by an amateur sociologist in a newspaper column. But it seems that the sharp decline in mobility over the past five decades is at least in part attributable to economic policies.

In other words, as we have written in the past, capitalism is not working for too many people in America.

A poll last year from Axios and Momentive found that 54 percent of young adults — 18- to 34-year-olds — had a negative view of capitalism. The poll found that 42 percent reported having a positive view, and that percentage had declined over the previous two years.

This was not the result of a generation of wannabe socialists. As The Hill reported: “The number of young Republicans with a favorable view of capitalism has also dropped from 81 percent in 2019 to 66 percent in the latest poll.”

Of course, this was during the middle of a pandemic, which has stressed our economic systems and skewed our perceptions of them. A pure capitalistic approach to the pandemic — the Hoover approach — would have had government embracing austerity measures instead of providing assistance that preserved the quality of life for millions.

But the notion of mobility is inextricably tied to economics. The belief that greener pastures are accessible and that success is attainable fuel our desire and our willingness to move. Buttrick and Oishi say the markers or a mobile society are “individualism, optimism, and tolerance”; it seems those traits are diminished when young adults wonder if they will ever be able to buy a house.

“Wanting to move but being unable to leave leads people to wonder about whether their other efforts in life will be rewarded,” the researchers write.

There are, of course, a multitude of reasons for this change in American society. But one of the most important, it seems, is a system that disproportionately benefits the wealthy.