Garett Jones  

Americans Used To Move A Lot

Marriage, Kids, and Party... James M. Buchanan, RIP...
Over the holidays some of my relatives lamented the changes going on in America.  One of the lamentations: the decline of dynamism, the rejection of the frontier spirit.  

Is there something to this?  One piece of evidence: We just don't move around as much as we used to.  Not nearly as much.  The graph below starts in 1986, this graph with smaller fonts goes back to 1947:

Source: Census Bureau, more figures here (PDF).  

One in 15 of us used to move counties every year, now it's about 1 in 30.  This isn't just an effect of our aging population; the post-1947 graph shows gross numbers of movers per year and that's been falling since the early 1960's, and links below provide further evidence.  The last spike in mobility was in the early 80's, in the aftermath of the Volcker/Reagan recession.  Other than that, we've become more rigid, more sclerotic with every passing decade.  

I might have thought that with smaller families and more singles people would find it easier to pick up and move to a better life.  Instead the decline of the nuclear family has coincided with more nesting, more geographic stability. 

Americans used to move around a lot.  Now we don't.  Is this a sign of declining economic dynamism?  

Maybe but let's look at some additional explanations: 

1.  Sociologist Claude Fischer (PDF) says that rising prosperity and the welfare state have both curbed rootlessness; in his view most people are natural homebodies and are likely to stay planted until the money runs out. 

2.  Free Exchange discussed Minneapolis Fed research claiming that the growth of the in-person production and service economy (e.g., healthcare, spa treatments) and the rising ease of learning about good towns to move to (Yelp, guidebooks, etc.) help explain the decline in mobility.  You don't need to move to a place to find out it's awful but once you build a career as a pedicurist your client base is local.  

There's probably something important to both of these stories; and notice that Fischer's story is a version of the story told by my relatives. Prosperity makes us less dynamic.  

I hope that geographic mobility doesn't have massive positive productivity spillovers.  

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (22 to date)
gwern writes:

Isn't this what we would expect from both the continued urbanizing of America and growth of big cities, and the growth in home ownership?

Anthony writes:

March CPS since 1999 has included a variable called WHYMOVE that contains 18 or 19 different reasons for moving. It could be fun to look at that and see which reasons are declining.

Grieve Chelwa writes:

I haven't a clue what the trends in home ownership rates look like for the US a whole. Robert Guest in his new book Borderless Economics hints at the fact that growth in home ownership rates in the US may have something to do with the stubbornly high overall unemployment rate since about 2007: more people than before own houses and therefore cannot easily migrate to different states/counties offering employment opportunities. So owning a home makes it unlikely that one will easily get up and go. (And increasing home ownership rates may be positively correlated with prosperity). He cites the work of UK economist Andrew Oswald who in a 1997 paper argued that the then rise in European home ownership rates was the missing piece in Europe's unemployment puzzle.

Daniel Jewell writes:

I've done my part: living in three counties in five years.

But I must wonder if there is a growing trend of Americans moving abroad to seek economic opportunity. Such emigration must surely be expected.

ed writes:

What about the growth of two-career families? It's harder to move if your spouse already has a good job.

Tom West writes:

ed beat me to it.

I'd posit 80% of the reduction of moving to two-career families. I'm pretty certain that all the members of EconLog would be unlikely to consider moving if their spouses lost their job or found a somewhat better opportunity elsewhere.

As well, moving is often a massive hit on the welfare of children and spouse that simply *had* to be borne because of economic difficulties. With greater prosperity, people don't have to endure as many moves.

Anthony writes:

@Ed/Tom: Worth noting, from the Economist article:

The authors analyse census data gathered monthly between 1991 and 2011, and find that the pattern of falling mobility persists across all parts of the workforce. Mobility is down across “all education levels, for people of all marital statuses, and for both single-earner and multiple-earner households.”

Brad Warbiany writes:

Agreed with Ed. The rise of two-income families makes moving a lot more difficult.

I'd also point out that the increase in divorce rates might have something to do with it. An intact family, whether single- or dual-income, has an easier time making a move than, for example, a divorced father moving 1,000 miles away from the woman who has custody of his children. I'd venture this is doubly true for "cost of living" moves, because an intact dual-income family might make a move to a cheaper place to live in the hopes of living on a single income.

Of course, these are just wild-assed guesses with no data to back them up, so take it with a grain of salt...

AMW writes:

"I might have thought that with smaller families and more singles people would find it easier to pick up and move to a better life. Instead the decline of the nuclear family has coincided with more nesting, more geographic stability."

The most uncomfortable part of moving is uprooting oneself from one's social circle. Having a nuclear family gives you a portable social circle. If you move for a job, it's expected that your spouse and kids will come along for the ride. But how often can one convince one or more friends to move to a new location?

Bob Knaus writes:

The shrinkage of the US military, along with base consolidations, surely must contribute. In my elementary school, most of the "new kids" each year were from the nearby airbase.

MingoV writes:

Our aging population has a huge effect on frequency of moving. Most retirees either stay where they are or make one move (usually southward) and stay put until death.

A second factor (related to Anthony's comment) is the increased wealth of families and increased government benefits (unemployment payments and Medicaid). After a person loses a job, his household can stay put longer while he hunts for a new job in the same area.

During the '08-09 period, there was a spike in bankruptcies and foreclosures, which meant many people would have been either forced to relocate or found it easier to do so. Meanwhile, the negative effects of the downturn in housing, construction and manufacturing made very clear the differences in potential prosperity between counties and cities. Considering the two explanations highlighted above, wouldn't you have expected to see at least some bump higher during the recent recession?

AMW writes:

"Considering the two explanations highlighted above, wouldn't you have expected to see at least some bump higher during the recent recession?"

There's no jump in migration, but there appears to be a structural break in 2008. Migration goes from falling quickly to staying fairly flat.

blink writes:

Perhaps the rise of the two-earner family plays a role, but gwern and Grieve Chelwa identify the best factor: home ownership. Here is a (crude) census graph that shows a steady rise in home ownership from a low in the 1940s.

Of course, home ownership just pushes the puzzle back a level, and "prosperity" may still be the underlying driver. There is also a story to tell regarding tax incentives and regulatory policy, however.

Smaller families mean fewer kids to take care of aging relatives, some of whom may expect that everything be given them that was given to their parents by a larger cohort of children.

When one kid of 4-5 moves away, the burden placed on remaining siblings is small. When one kid of 1-2 moves away...

john hare writes:

We moved a lot when I was a kid. By the time I was old enough to decide for myself, I had had enough. I've lived in the same county for 40 years now, except for an out of state job that lasted a few months working for a local company.

I had lived in 3 states by the time I was 15, which is no big deal. But I had worked in a dozen or so a town a week working with carnivals from age 12 to 15. That's well over 100 towns/cities.

The grass may be greener, but it probably tastes like fertilizer.

Steve Sailer writes:

I reviewed Susan J. Matt's fine 2011 book Homesickness: An American History:

Matt observes:

"In the nineteenth century, many in the nation believed that it was acceptable to talk openly about these costs ... Homesickness was not yet shameful, for love and loyalty toward home were the marks of a virtuous character."

In the warmer-hearted Victorian era, homesickness was treated sympathetically even by such huge and hardheaded institutions as the U.S. Army. Matt writes:

"The phenomenon of homesickness ... received systematic attention during the Civil War ... The term nostalgia was used to describe the acutely homesick ... In fact, during the war, Union doctors diagnosed more than five thousand soldiers as suffering from nostalgia, seventy-four of whom succumbed to the condition."

Over time, however, as America's big institutions—military, corporate, governmental, educational, and sporting—became even bigger, they became increasingly hostile toward Americans expressing their feelings of homesickness:

"Consequently, by the end of the twentieth century, few native-born adults overly discussed the emotion, although they displayed it in other ways."

Homesickness was castigated as shamefully immature or lower class. Why? Because a longing for a particular setting makes "individuals less interchangeable, less fungible."

Treating people as fungible makes giant institutions more efficient. After WWII, managers of IBM joked that the corporate acronym stood for "I've Been Moved." The Cold War military relocated officers constantly, with notorious effects on the happiness of their Army Brat children, who grew up without ever having a hometown.

Over the last generation, middle managers and their families have, with some success, quietly rebelled against corporate cultures demanding incessant relocation.

On the other hand, some industries, such as academia, have become more nomadic as temporary hiring becomes the dominant employment mode. Dr. Matt, who now has tenure at Weber St., notes in an aside that she and her husband have lived in six states since they met at Cornell in 1990. Because she dedicates Homesickness to her parents and sister, I would guess that she found the frequent moves demanded by modern academic life to be wrenching.

Lars P writes:

It's probably not a dominant factor, especially nationally, but Proposition 13 in California makes it quite expensive to move for anyone who's owned their house for some time.

I don't know how wide spread that kind of stuff is, but there are several rent control schemes in California and New York with similar effects.

Ken P writes:

It's odd for me to picture reduced relocation as a sign of prosperity. Job jumping is a good way to increase your income. It's especially common among people with 6 figure incomes.

Two income families makes a lot of sense for reduced relocation, especially if both are educated.

babar writes:

Why move if the place you're moving to is pretty much a carbon copy of the place you moved from?

Anyplace with character is very expensive these days

hadacol writes:

^What babar said.

Also, you guys seem to be conveniently forgetting that you couldn't move even if you want to since your mortgage is underwater.

billy writes:

US federalisim is the founding principle that States are labratories of democraccy. This entire idea is based on the notion of a mobile population. If the state makes laws that you don't like, you can move. However, as mobility rates decline, people are unwilling to move somewhere else to get access, coverage, freedoms or protection of laws they find most appealing. Instead we see a norming of state governance across state boundaries that, all too often, looks more like a lowest common denominator than a rich labratory of democracy and ideas.

Population movement is an extremely important factor.

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