On the Census’ Mobility Report

According to the latest Census report, the share of Americans moving has reached a record low. “The percentage of people who changed residences between 2010 and 2011 ─ 11.6 percent ─ was the lowest recorded rate since the Current Population Survey began collecting statistics on the movement of people in the United States in 1948.”  Brad Plumer covers it here, Catherine Rampell covers it here.

A few things worth noting.  That 11.6% is low for America, but very high for the rest of the developed world.  From the Federal Reserve Board’s 2011 paper Internal Migration in the United States, here is a cross country comparison:

Second, when we talk about a decline, we should realize this is a multi-decade process.  The Census release makes it sound like we woke up to a record low out of nowhere, instead of a general downward trend over a long-period.  Here’s a graph we put together last year showing this:

So what is causing the decline?  Since the decline is across virtually all groups and locations it is difficult to find any specific shock to location or demographic that could be generating this.  Some hypotheses you see are that financial innovation allowed people to tap home equity without moving, dual-career households make it harder to move for just one specific job, we are seeing the aftermath of a giant move to the Sunbelt, local areas are more homogenized in the goods they can offer, making any specific city less attractive, more telecommuting and other technological changes, etc.  None are particularly convincing.

Underwater mortgages seem like a place to start for this, because it is difficult to sell a house you owe more on than it is worth.  But this is hard to find by looking in the data, and if anything underwaterness is correlated with an increase in mobility, not a decrease:

People walk, or rent out, their underwater homes.  Indeed, the evidence for underwater mortgages limiting mobility in any type of aggregate way is actually very thin (graph above from that collection of research).

Maybe the question should be flipped – why were Americans moving so much over the last 50 years?

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12 Responses to On the Census’ Mobility Report

  1. Tom says:

    Two thoughts.

    Is the flattening of same county moves in 2001 the end of white flight?

    Hypothesizing that interstate moves are mostly about jobs and retirees moving south, maybe the decline is that there aren’t so many jobs to move for now.

  2. Mike says:

    The Federal Reserve paper linked above is good on dealing with some of the big hypotheses. The Sun Belt stuff is in there, but they think it doesn’t jump out enough to be the explanation. My sense is that it is a ton of little things all added together.

    • Ted K says:

      I think it’s very obvious why Americans moved so much the last 50 years. The same as the reason people are moving like crazy in China (if they can get the city residence permit). More jobs and better jobs in the city/urban areas. Common sense and your relatives/acquaintances will tell you that. (also, get the hell away from parents as they go to college)

      Mike you are a super intelligent guy, there is no bones about it. But sometimes you have some magnificent brain farts. That question was so dumb I had to stop a second to think if you were being rhetorical. Sorry man, I like you, but I’m just calling it like it is man.

  3. Abby says:

    My understanding is that people are less likely to move as they age (it is pretty stark in the teacher labor economics research I have done), at least pre-retirement, I wonder if the trend is due to the aging of the baby boomers? They largely aren’t old enough yet to be moving for retirement, so it could be the inertia that sets in as we age and become established.

  4. Once upon a time in America, people moved to find better opportunities. And in moving, they often found what they were looking for. (Sometimes they did not; Wallace Stegner’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain” tells this story beautifully.)

    Today, as you note, a percentage of people are moving to flee a terrible situation. Their house is worth less than their loan – they’re drowning in debt and they’re doing what they can to get their head back above water. For them, the American dream is a nightmare.

    Look at the data supplied by moving companies. Talk to relo experts. The housing crisis has crippled the mobility of our workers. That is a severe issue for our economy. (http://bit.ly/hRhROg)

    The question isn’t why people moved in the last 50 years – the question is: does our mobility today lead to greater opportunity? For people fleeing an underwater mortgage, the answer is likely “no.”

  5. Corey says:

    I don’t know, I kind of like the two-earner theory – or, alternatively, the two-career theory. If both working adults in a household have a job that represents more than an income stream – particularly if the field is highly localized – you can imagine a significant number of households staying put rather than disrupt one career for the benefit of the other.

  6. Perhaps people are becoming more reluctant to move as they acquire more and more STUFF.

  7. S Bayer says:

    There does not seem really to be much of a mystery here if you look at the breakout of migration by age (See, for example, this table from the Federal Reserve: http://www.federalreserve.gov/pubs/feds/2011/201130/201130pap.pdf.)

    People migrate most between the ages of 18 and 24. (I know I sure did.) After the age of 24, people migrate less and less. The decline in U.S. migration rates begins after 1980. 1980 was the last year that the 18-24 yr old group was composed entirely of baby-boom cohorts. After 1980, 18-24 year olds comprise a declining portion of the population and the baby-boom cohorts moved steadily into age groups with lower and lower migration rates.

    What is curious is that a noted economist (Plumer) and a noted economics reporter (Rampell) both so quickly jumped to the conclusion that the decline reported by the Census Bureau was a consequence of the housing finance crisis and/or the current economic slump.

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