J.D. Vance on Income Mobility in America

by Reihan Salam

J.D. Vance has a piece on income mobility in America in the latest issue of National Review, which I enthusiastically recommend. The following passage points to an important question — if the problem is that our public institutions are broken or underfunded, why is it that American girls are doing so much better than American boys?

When Nordic researchers compared their own countries with the United States, they found that while American men were much less mobile than their Nordic counterparts, there was no significant difference between American girls and Nordic girls. American daughters, it turns out, are doing much better than American sons. In poll after poll, young women indicate their wish to marry, but they’re having trouble finding suitable men. Those who do marry find themselves working just as much outside the home as do their husbands, who do significantly less of the cooking, cleaning, and caretaking. Our marriage crisis, then, is as much about the inadequacies of American men as it is about family values or economic incentives. And that’s a problem you can’t fix with tax reform.

You can’t fix it with minimum-wage increases, or stronger labor laws, or reduced corporate compensation, either. Median wages in the United States have grown very slowly since the 1970s. Commentators often bemoan this fact and argue that economic duress is the cause of America’s declining marriage rate. But if the problem is entirely economic and not at all cultural, then why are girls doing so much better than boys? Girls live in the same economy and face the same set of struggles (or more of them, some would argue). Even if slow wage growth is a problem, it’s an entirely different one from that of men doing less around the house than their wives do.

Vance also describes how fewer Americans are moving from economically moribund regions to economically vibrant ones, as “the costs of staying put are lower now than three decades ago” and “decades of bipartisan housing policy have trapped many in the least economically mobile regions of the country”:

Economists have long recognized that geographic movement is an investment in one’s earning potential. The combination of antipoverty programs and housing policy increased the costs of that investment precipitously.

Relocation vouchers, as proposed by Michael R. Strain, are one way to mitigate this development, but Vance makes it clear that there is no silver bullet for tackling the relative lack of upward mobility from the bottom of the U.S. income distribution. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.