Why Are Americans Staying Put?

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Why Are Americans Staying Put?

Cullen Nutt

Interpreting the decline in American mobility.

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2m 47sec

“We’re becoming a nation of homebodies,” demographer William H. Frey wrote for the Brookings Institution’s blog last November, “and not by choice.” Frey was reacting to new Census data indicating that 11.6 percent of Americans moved in 2011, the lowest rate since statistics were first collected in 1948.

Homebodies indeed, but many Americans may not be complaining. Contrary to oft-cited short-term explanations—underwater mortgages, the hollow labor market, and the Great Recession more broadly—American migration has been in decline for decades, through both economic boom and bust. Economists Raven Molloy, Christopher L. Smith, and Abigail Wozniak make this point about interstate migration in a scholarly article that we highlight in an In Essence item, “Staying Put,” in our latest issue.
Molloy, Smith, and Wozniak find that virtually all demographic groups—across the spectrum of income, age, marital status, education level, and ethnic background—moved between states at lower rates in 2010 (and 2000) than they did in 1980. (The authors focus on interstate migration indicators; the new Census numbers announced in late 2011 also account for migration within states and counties.) Molloy, Smith, and Wozniak say there’s no ready explanation for the trend, let alone any evidence that the latest economic turmoil had more than a marginal impact.
Migration statistics during the years of the recession may themselves be suspect. Economists Greg Kaplan and Sam Schulhofer-Wohl wrote a paper last year aptly titled “Interstate Migration Has Fallen Less Than You Think.” They say the steeper than normal drop-off in migration since 2006 is a statistical red herring. That year the Census Bureau changed the way it made certain calculations, correcting what had previously been an artificially inflated interstate migration rate. Kaplan and Schulhofer-Wohl reconciled the data and found that the 2007-2009 recession had little effect. Rather, “the migration rate has merely followed its long-term downward trend.”
All this throws into doubt some recent commentary on American geographic mobility. In a column for The New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson says the Census numbers point to a fundamental divide between the haves and the have-nots. “People aren’t packing up for new economic opportunities the way they used to,” he laments. Instead of “the one percenters versus everyone else, the split in our economy is really between two other classes: the mobile and immobile.”
Maybe not. Another explanation is that the American economic landscape is growing more homogenous. People have less reason to call in the movers. Both groups of authors cited above explore this possibility. Molloy, Smith, and Wozniak point out that amenities in any given place are more uniform than ever. Why move to the Pacific Northwest or to Texas when you can enjoy Seattle’s Best or On the Border anywhere in the country? And why move anywhere for a job when you can telecommute? Besides, in the era of two-worker families pulling up stakes isn’t that easy—and might not make sense.
The question, then, may not be one of money. Among other theories, Kaplan and Schulhofer-Wohl wonder aloud whether it may be the case that “migration is low because it is unneeded, not because it is costly.”
Photo by HeatherWeaver via flickr