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?