Sam Dresser: The increasingly mobile US is a myth that needs to move on
The evidence that mobility has declined is more robust for roughly the past 65 years, thanks to annual census-bureau mass surveys. Around 1950, about 20 per cent of Americans changed homes from one year to the next. In the 1980s, under 18 per cent did. By the 2000s, under 15 per cent – and now we are approaching annual moving rates of only 10 per cent. About two-thirds of movers do not go far, relocating within the same county, and the frequency of such local moves has dropped by about half since the Second World War. The proportion of Americans who move across county and state lines is considerably lower, but that rate, too, has dropped substantially, from about 6.5 per cent in the 1950s to under 4 per cent now.
This trend toward staying in place has accelerated since 2001. Why? The geographer Thomas J Cooke at the University of Connecticut largely credits the economic crisis, but he argues that mobility would still have declined in any event because of a general societal trend toward ‘increased rootedness’. The economists Raven Molloy, Christopher L Smith and Abigail Wozniak have speculated that perhaps technological changes have made telecommuting easier and therefore moving for job reasons is less necessary. Another explanation offered is that US communities have become so similar in terms of employment that there’s no financial point in moving. But, in short, no clear explanation has yet emerged for what many economists, as I discuss later, consider a problem.