CHAPTER 5

Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?

ONE BIG QUESTION pundits and commentators mull over is this: why don’t people facing hard economic times move to where economic times are better? If you live in Detroit, Michigan; Millinocket, Maine; Camden, New Jersey; York, Pennsylvania; or Yuma, Arizona,74 why not move to an area where the economy is growing? At best, elites are puzzled. At worst, they’re patronizing and even scornful. “Donald Trump cannot deliver new jobs like pizza wherever you live,” said Glenn Helton,* decrying the “stubborn immobility of the white working class.”

Part of the reason is the power of “clique networks,” as sociologists call them, where everybody knows everyone else and ties run deep.75 This has a practical side to it: in the working class of all races, family ties also involve material help with child care and home improvements—things wealthier families buy. Clique networks help protect working-class families from their vulnerable market position.

The folkways of elites are very different. Professionals’ national job markets also mean they often end up far away from their families, and family relationships among adults typically involve purely emotional ties: families support one another by talking things through. If working-class networks are narrow and deep, professionals’ are broad but shallow.

A class-migrant professor tried to explain to a colleague why he saw his distant family so much more than his colleague saw his (who lived closer): “It’s a blue-collar thing. . . . Middle-class kids are groomed to fly away, and they do. The working class likes to keep its young close to home.”76 Tearing a working-class person from the network that defines their life is a far heavier lift than insisting that a Harvard grad move to Silicon Valley.

The professional elite values change and self-development; working-class families value stability and community. The professional elite associates change with challenge, excitement, opportunity, and innovation. But for families a few paychecks away from losing their homes and stable middle-class lives, respect for stability reigns supreme. “I associate change with loss,” said a class migrant whose father was evicted from apartment after apartment. Moving to a new city or state is often appealing for someone from the professional elite, and an alarming prospect for someone from the working class. (By the way, the working class shares this with low-income Americans of all races, who also tend to stay close to home, for many of the same reasons.)

Moving for a job doesn’t strike the professional elite as a big deal, because the professional elite relies heavily on work to shape identity. A study of health professionals in Massachusetts found doctors’ lives shaped by what sociologist Mary Blair-Loy calls the “work devotion schema”: high-level professionals are expected to “maintain a single-minded focus” on work in which “[a]ny nonwork activities pale . . . in significance . . . [to] professional responsibilities.” This ideal has its roots in the Protestant work ethic, in which work was viewed as a “calling” from God.77

For many in the professional elite, work becomes a totalizing experience. “Holidays are a nuisance because you have to stop working,” said a corporate litigator. “I remember being really annoyed when it was Thanksgiving. Damn, why did I have to stop working to go eat a turkey? I missed my favorite uncle’s funeral, because I had a deposition scheduled that was too important.”78

Working-class men find this obsession with work off-putting. Thus a salesman decried overly ambitious people who “have blinders on. You miss all of life. . . . A person that is totally ambitious and driven never sees anything except the spot they are aiming at.” Working-class men dismiss work devotion as narcissism. An electronics technician criticized people who are “so self-assured, so self-intense that they don’t really care about anyone else. . . . It’s me, me, me, me, me. I’m not that kind of person at all, and that’s probably why I don’t like it.”79

But elite men embrace work devotion as integral to manliness. Working long hours is seen as a “heroic activity,” noted a study of lawyers.80 For Silicon Valley engineers, working long hours turns computer keyboarding into a manly test of physical endurance. “There’s this kind of machismo culture among young male engineers that you just don’t sleep,” one engineer told Marianne Cooper.81 “[S]uccessful enactment of this masculinity,” she concludes, “involves displaying one’s exhaustion, physically and verbally, in order to convey the depth of one’s commitment, stamina, and virility.”82

For elite men, ambition and a strong work ethic are “doubly sacred . . . [as signals of] both moral and socioeconomic worth.”83 Work, in some sense, is their religion. Recognizing that may make us less condescending about Americans who worship a different God and arguably have a healthier relationship to work.

Moving for a job makes sense in this context, if you know a million former college classmates in Chicago anyway. But moving means something very different for working-class people. Remember the fellow who hissed, “I sell toilets”? It’s safer to hang out with people you’ve known forever who will not judge you on your often-inglorious job. Familiar faces provide a buffer against humiliation.

Then there’s the question of what moving away might imply: that you care more about your job than your community. Part of the reason the working class doesn’t move to where the jobs are is because of these deep ties to their communities. And this communitarian streak manifests in other, clearly laudable ways. Households earning $50,000 to $75,000 give away far more of their discretionary income (7.6%) than do households earning $100,000 or more (4.2%).84 The middle-class Maryland towns of Capitol Heights (majority white) and Suitland85 (majority black) give away a higher proportion of their incomes than the tony suburbs of McLean, Virginia, and Bethesda, Maryland.86 Remember how Vance’s father’s church bought him a car when he was unemployed? These were not affluent people.

Sherman describes a white rural family that sheltered and fed, over the years, some 200 local kids who were escaping physical abuse or parental addiction. This was a serious financial strain, but nearly half of the 55 people Sherman interviewed had cared for children who were not biologically related to them.87

Non-privileged people, whether poor or working class, tend to be more rooted than American elites. Their lack of market power means that they rely on close networks of family and friends for many things more affluent folks purchase on the open market, from child and elder care to home improvement projects. Moving would eliminate this safety net, and having to pay for child care might well erase the economic benefits of moving.

At a deeper level, non-privileged people invest much more of their identities in their close-knit families and communities than do more privileged ones. Poor and working-class people derive social honor from their reputations in communities of people who’ve known them “forever.” Moving for them is not like moving from New York to San Francisco to crash in your college roommate’s apartment while you found a start-up among people who have been trained since childhood to build fluid careers based on fluid networks of personal and business acquaintances. It’s throwing away the only relationships that give you the prospect of social honor, the only social life you know how to create, and the social safety net that has seen you through.

Among the poor and the working class, social lives often revolve around family. This begins early: Annette Lareau notes that children often play with cousins and that “it would be hard to overstate the importance of family” in white working-class lives.88 For decades, my sister-in-law went grocery shopping every weekend with her mother, which I thought was bizarre until I decided it was brilliant. Now I go to Costco every weekend with my son, but I don’t know anyone else who does anything like that. A man described to Hochschild that he “had grown up in a dense circle of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents all within walking distance of each other.”89 Again, there are material reasons that make it harder for working-class people to just pull up roots and move.

Blue-state families are better off than red-state ones, who have higher rates of teenage pregnancy and lower ages of marriage and first birth,90 as progressives delight in pointing out as an example of hypocrisy. But that’s not the point. Family values are about aspiration. Until about 1980, young adults in the working class were like college grads: they waited to have children until they were married. But now Americans who are not college grads don’t wait.91 Instead they behave more like the poor, who have been having children out of wedlock for quite a while.92

Why? Americans tend to associate marriage with the white picket fence—a stable job, stable home, stable life. If you feel that stability is attainable, you wait until you have it before marriage and kids. But if Americans feel that’s not a practical goal, or only an extremely long-term and aspirational one, they tend not to marry. The decline in marriage is a symptom of the working class’s economic decline—not, as some argue, its cause.93

The rootlessness of the PME makes sense in their lives: they have friends and classmates throughout the country or the world, their job markets are national or global, their family ties are chiefly emotional rather than practical or economic—and when someone in the professional class moves, they can maintain those emotional ties through unlimited international data plans.94 But both the poor and the working class of all races typically are deeply rooted, both by disposition and necessity. You can’t provide child care for your grandchildren via Skype.

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