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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t employed as much

About 1% of the U.S. population claims Dutch ancestry. Compared to the average American, these 3.5 million Dutch Americans are taller, have names much later in the alphabet, and, it seems, are less likely to be unemployed.

Perhaps this is that “Protestant Work Ethic,” but more likely it’s the “Reformed Community Ethic.” That is, I think that the Dutch population is a proxy for social cohesion or social capital. I also think that social cohesion is a vaccine against bad outcomes, including unemployment.

To be clear, I don’t have unemployment figures by ancestry in the United States. However, we do have unemployment by county and Dutch ancestry by county. And this is much more relevant to my thesis, the argument I made in Alienated America and elsewhere, because it is the Dutch places, not necessarily the Dutch people, that have good outcomes.

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The most heavily Dutch counties in the U.S. all have the lowest or nearly the lowest unemployment rates in their respective states.

Sioux County, Iowa, is the most Dutch county in the U.S. This is the home to Orange City, located around Windmill Square, and home to a massive Tulip Festival. About 46% of the county claims Dutch ancestry, according to Census figures. Sioux County also has an unemployment rate of 1.5%, the lowest in the state, and less than half of the statewide rate of 3.6%. The second-lowest unemployment rate in Iowa belongs to Lyon County, where it’s 1.6%. Lyon is the second most Dutch county in America, at 32.5% Dutch.

Ottawa County, Michigan, home to Holland, Michigan, is third place for Dutchness nationwide and first place on low unemployment in Michigan, at 3.2%. Allegan, Kent, Missaukee, and Barry counties in Michigan also have more than 14% Dutchness and less than 4% unemployment, which is enough to place all of them in the best quartile in the state on unemployment.

Douglas County, South Dakota, is the fourth-most Dutch county in the U.S., and it has the third-lowest unemployment in South Dakota, at 2.2%, compared to the statewide 3.3%.

Rock and Pipestone counties in Minnesota also have 20%-plus Dutch ancestry. They have the lowest and third-lowest unemployment rates in Minnesota.

Of all the counties with 20% or more Dutch ancestry, Mahaska and Marion counties in Iowa (in and around Pella) have the highest unemployment rates, 2.9% and 2.4%, and even they are significantly below the statewide unemployment.

It’s possible this is all a coincidence. More likely, some causal mechanism is at play here. I find it unlikely that being employed makes one more likely to identify as Dutch. I think the “ecological” explanation fits best and that this is about community cohesion helping people weather downturns and avoid bad outcomes.

That’s what I argued from Holland, Michigan, a few years ago:

A shared culture and faith builds social trust. Trust is crucial to making the gears of commerce spin smoothly. [Holland resident Gary] Gunnink points out that “A lot of these businesses are started by local people.” He says Western Michigan has usually had peace between labor and management largely because of this.

The Dutch are famous for knowing and sharing everyone’s business. “A community like this,” Gunnink says, “you’re not going to screw people over and then survive. It’s gonna get out in a hurry.”

Strong communities cannot prevent economic downturns, but they can preserve social capital during economic downturns.

Involved parents are less likely to flee town, and so local schools are more likely to stay strong. Institutions like museums and colleges and libraries do function as employers, including during downturns. But just as important, they educate, they support businesses and families. With strong communities, it’s easier to keep your life in order …

The places that collapse are the places that lack the dense web of community institutions. When the money slows down, the most active and involved parents flee and education quality drops. Churches and Little Leagues close down, and people have a harder time raising families. An employer views, say, Mecosta County or Detroit, as communities that don’t have their stuff together. More dropouts, more teenage pregnancies, more drug use, more alcohol abuse — these are not attractive traits to a prospective employer.

It’s true that economic conditions can strengthen or weaken communities, but I think community strength can have a strong effect on economic well-being.

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