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Americans Still Move, Just Not Enough

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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We don’t move as often as we used to. The percentage of U.S. residents who changed addresses in the previous year has been on a long, mostly steady decline.

The great majority of these moves are within the same county, so it’s worth breaking out the moves that aren’t so close to home:

Moving in search of opportunity is such a big part of both U.S. history and mythology that this slide in residential mobility has been the cause of much concern. What’s behind it? The sharp drop from 2005 to 2010 is attributable in part to the housing bust, as people were “locked in” to their homes by underwater mortgages and the simple unwillingness to sell at a loss.

As for the longer-term decline that seems to have really gotten going in the late 1980s, people have offered lots of different explanations. In a 2013 article in the Washington Monthly, journalist Timothy Noah ran through and dismissed a bunch of them -- the aging of the population, rising home ownership, two-income couples, telecommuting -- before pinning most of the blame on the combination of high real estate prices in the places most in need of workers and big income disparities that make it especially hard for those in the bottom half (or even the bottom nine-tenths) of the income distribution to afford housing in those places. In a 2014 article in National Affairs, Eli Lehrer and Lori Sanders of the conservative/libertarian think tank R Street agreed that housing prices -- and the zoning and other restrictions that helped cause them -- were part of the problem, but focused on “place-based” aid programs that keep less-affluent people tied down where they are.

I’m not going to attempt to weigh all these arguments here -- that’s a task for another column -- but there’s a big new report on residential mobility out this month from the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship that sheds some new light on the discussion. Winship is a social scientist known for taking seemingly alarming trends in economic data -- rising income inequality, declining economic mobility -- and finding explanations and other data that render them somewhat less alarming. He does that, to some extent, with residential mobility.

Winship identifies the most important kind of residential mobility as moves across state lines between adolescence and adulthood. This period, as Winship puts it, “encompasses the transition to adulthood, including decisions about higher education, military service, and professional careers.” Since 1970, he documents, the difference in earnings between those from low-income areas who have moved across state lines and those who haven’t has grown markedly.

Residential mobility matters more than it used to, then. Yet when measured by whether an adult has moved across state lines since birth (similar data isn't available on moves since adolescence), it doesn’t seem to have declined, at least not much:

source: scott winship/manhattan institute

For those attempting to read this on a smartphone: the percentage of Americans in their 30s living in the states where they were born peaked in 1950. Since then the percentage who have moved across state lines has, after increasing in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, been unchanged to slightly down. And the percentage of people moving from abroad has grown a lot. And overall, the breakdown in 2010 was almost identical to that of 1880.

So that's interesting. I would think that the sharp decline in moves since 2000 that shows up in the annual data will eventually have some impact on Winship's decennial measure as well. And in any case, Winship's main conclusion is similar to that of almost everyone else who studies this topic -- even if residential mobility isn't declining, we need more of it.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net