Voting With Your Feet Works for the Poor, Too

At the America Magazine website, Robert David Sullivan responds to my book and Cato Unbound essay arguing that foot voting leads to better-informed decisions than ballot box voting by claiming that foot voting is only likely to benefit the wealthy:

I haven’t seen the book, but Somin’s essay reads like a whispered call for solidarity among highly educated (which usually means high-income) Americans. The message is: Why let those people make demands on government when they don’t even know what government does? Shifting power to smaller and smaller political jurisdictions also has implications for the well-being of Americans who don’t live in affluent communities. Look at public schools, which in most states are largely funded at the local level. Our public education system allows for “voting with your feet,” if you’re financially able, by moving to a county or town with high property values. But in this case, “decentralization” is a legitimate-sounding way of banishing from your mind poorer neighborhoods just a few miles away.

In reality, as I discuss at length in the book and elsewhere (e.g. here and here), foot voting historically has benefited the poor as much or more than the affluent. This is true for several reasons: the poor usually have more to gain from moving to jurisdictions with better job opportunities and policies (in part because they are so much worse off to begin with), and they are less likely to own immobile assets such as land that are difficult or impossible to take with you. Dramatic examples of effective foot voting by the relatively poor include the movement of millions of poor African-Americans from the South to the North in the first half of the twentieth century, and the movement of poor and lower middle class people to Texas and various southern and southwestern states in recent years, partly in response to those states’ more flexible labor markets and cheaper housing (caused in part by less restrictive zoning laws).

Education is another area where foot voting can benefit the poor as much or more than the rich. For example, the poor can benefit disproportionately from school choice programs, which enable individual parents to choose their schools. It is true, of course, that many public schools in poor areas are of low quality. But it does not follow that centralized control of public education would be any better. Decades of increased federal funding for public schooling has produced few if any educational gains for the poor; the same goes for court-ordered state subsidies for local public schools in poor areas.