Jayne: The system gets in the way of the American dream

Moving is ingrained in the American DNA.

Upward mobility is a foundation of the American dream. “Go west, young man, go west and grow with the country,” editor Horace Greeley said in 1865. Westward expansion, the great migration and the Dustbowl migration have marked periods of our history.

The quest for new lands and newfound freedom is what brought the first European settlers to this continent. While the genocide and colonization that accompanied some of these movements is certainly worth discussing, for now we focus on the American desire for movement and exploration.

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

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

According to US Census Bureau data cited in a Vox.com article, about 20% of Americans would move each year between the end of World War II and 1970. Since then, the rate has steadily declined, reaching about 10% 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 from year to year. For example, in one county in Illinois, only about 20 percent of the households that lived there in 1840 remained until 1850; in another town in Ohio, only 7% of people voted in the 1850 and 1860 elections in the same district.

Declining physical mobility is not necessarily a bad thing. On the one hand, it reflects increased comfort and security, which are the whole point of a developed society. But as Vox describes the gist of the study: “When people move less, it affects culture. Less drive, increased risk aversion, distrust of strangers, cynicism, discontent.

There is a difference between comfort and convenience.

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

In other words, as we’ve written in the past, capitalism isn’t working for too many people in America.

A poll conducted last year by Axios and Momentive found that 54% of young adults – aged 18 to 34 – had a negative view of capitalism. The poll found that 42% said they had a positive view and that percentage had declined over the previous two years.

It was not the result of a generation of budding socialists. As The Hill reported, “The number of young Republicans with a favorable view of capitalism also fell from 81% in 2019 to 66% in the latest poll.”

Of course, this was in the midst of a pandemic, which has strained our economic systems and skewed our perception of them. A purely capitalist approach to the pandemic – the Hoover approach – would have led the government to adopt austerity measures instead of providing assistance that has preserved the quality of life for millions of people.

But the notion of mobility is inextricably linked to the economy. The belief that greener pastures are accessible and that success is attainable fuels our desire and drive to move. Buttrick and Oishi say that the markers of a mobile society are “individualism, optimism and tolerance”; these traits seem to be toned down as young adults wonder if they will ever be able to buy a home.

“Wanting to move but not being able to leave leads people to wonder if their other efforts in life will be rewarded,” the researchers write.

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

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