6 points on race and culture from JD Vance and William Julius Wilson

America’s divisions – of race, class and culture – were the subject of an in-depth conversation here at Brookings between William Julius Wilson, Harvard professor, author of The Truly Disadvantaged and Brookings Non-Resident Senior Fellow; and J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It was a rich, timely and thought-provoking session, and you can watch the whole event here. A few points stood out to us, however, so we’ve pulled out a few clips.

1. jobs matter

Being in a job matters not just for income, but for a sense of purpose and identity, according to William Julius Wilson:

Wilson pointed out that neighborhoods where most residents are poor but employed are very different from those whose residents are poor but jobless. Brookings research confirms that there is huge variation in employment rates by geographic area. Ensuring that all households benefit from economic growth means focusing on maintaining full employment, but it also means investing in skills and human capital.

2. Black americans face concentrated poverty

Both speakers highlighted the risk posed by the geographical concentration of poverty, especially for black Americans. Asked whether it is worse to be poor and black than poor and white, Vance emphasized these neighborhood effects:

Vance and Wilson agreed that living in an area of concentrated poverty is worse than simply being poor, and that the greater odds of living in a poor area for black Americans are the result of discriminatory housing policies of the 1950s and 1960s. Previous Brookings research confirms that residents of poor neighborhoods have a much harder time moving up the economic ladder, while other research shows how racial segregation, concentrated poverty, and upward mobility are intertwined.

3. Social connections and family instability are critical for poor americans

Both Wilson and Vance explained how concentrated poverty also means the absence of social connections that are critical to employment, well-being, and civic engagement. The importance of family life for upward mobility was a recurrent theme of the conversation. Vance argued that cultural factors – including family stability – are often neglected, with more emphasis typically being placed on either structural factors or on personal responsibility:

Family instability and family trauma are not simply the result of individual failings or structural barriers, according to Vance. Instead, they are cultural. As both he and Wilson point out, family factors are hugely important for upward mobility. Family structure, in particular, is strongly associated with economic mobility. Low-income children raised in two-parent families are more likely to get ahead than those raised in single-parent families.

4. Rural communities cannot simply be abandoned

One of our own papers shows that rural counties with the highest rates of upward mobility also exhibit the highest rates of outmigration, particularly among the young, aged 15-24. Vance agreed that moving out might be, for many, a way to move up. But it is unreasonable to expect people to move to somewhere that might seem “like a different planet”. There is a big difference, for example, between moving from Eastern Kentucky to San Francisco and moving from Eastern Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio.

This suggests that developing regional economies is important so that individuals who want to move to opportunity can do so without losing their social contacts and cultural identities.

5. democrats turned away from the white working class in 2016, and paid the price

William Julius Wilson says that in the 2016 election, Democrats failed to represent poor white Americans:

The political dangers of ignoring low-income whites are clear. But as both speakers said in different ways, policies that help poor whites will also help poor blacks; indeed, likely more so. As our colleagues Isabel Sawhill and Elizabeth Kneebone have argued, policies like the EITC and paid parental leave address some of the widespread concerns of the working class and might draw bipartisan appeal.

6. political leaders should focus on promoting equality of life chances

What kind of leaders do we need? That was one of many questions from the audience, and drew a philosophical answer from Wilson:

(As it happens, Brookings paid close attention to Fishkin’s book, Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity, with a series on our blog here, including contributions from Yuval Levin, William Galston and Fishkin himself).

Right now, the U.S. has relatively low rates of upward mobility compared to international peers. Realizing the “American Dream” is a distant prospect for many, especially black Americans. Concerted, sustained effort will be required to close the opportunity gap between blacks and white Americans. There is, right now, plenty to feel gloomy about. But conversations like the one between Vance and Wilson bring us some hope.