Trying to explain the declining mobility of Americans

More recent data suggests American mobility has slowed and we’re not quite sure why:

Historically Americans are an extremely mobile people, but if they keep moving like they did the past five years, they may not keep that reputation for long. This month the U.S. Census released the latest migration data [PDF] from the Current Population Survey, which measures whether or not a person has moved within the past five years (via David King). The 2010 national five-year mobility rate was about 35 percent — the lowest since the Census began to collect data on the question…

The Census has detailed data on who’s moving. People in their late twenties had the highest mobility rate (about 65 percent), while Latinos and African Americans were the most mobile racial groups (each with rates of roughly 43 percent). Households making under $50,000 a year moved a bit more than those with incomes over $75,000. Renters moved much more than homeowners: at a rate of two-thirds to less than a quarter, respectively.

The bureau also knows where they’re moving. Among people who did move, most stayed in the same county (61 percent, an all-time high). The share of Americans who moved from different states (nearly 16 percent) and from different counties within the same state (19 percent) both declined a few points. The South had a statistically significant net mobility gain of 1.1 million people, while the Northeast (832,000) and Midwest (350,000) lost people on net…

But the Census can’t quite say why Americans are moving — or not moving, as the case appears. The obvious culprit is the recession: when it’s hard to get a new job or sell your house, you aren’t likely to move. That explanation doesn’t entirely hold up against the data, however. For one thing, the unemployed moved at a higher five-year rate than people with jobs (48 to 37 percent). Also moving rates having been trending down in recent years for renters and homeowners alike (green and red lines, respectively).

The summary: it is not clear why Americans are moving less. The one answer the article ends with is that Americans may simply be willing to move less. What if we simply have reached a point where fewer Americans are willing to explore, have adventures, take advantage of different opportunities, and other supposed traits of American residents? We are long past the frontier era of American life and perhaps this narrative of mobility simply doesn’t apply any more. The last “frontier” we conquered was putting astronauts on the moon; this was a while ago and it didn’t lead to much mobility to the new frontier.

I wonder if there is any sort of story here about maturing communities or nations where people “settle down” and mobility slows. I could imagine this taking place at the level of a suburb: the early years might be marked by a highly transient population that is moving in and out of new housing but as the community matures fewer new people are moving in to the decreasing amount of new housing.


One thought on “Trying to explain the declining mobility of Americans

  1. Pingback: State of the housing market: spring here but inventory of homes for sale still down | Legally Sociable

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