More Americans on the move: why that's a good thing

More Americans moved last year than in 2008, according to the Census Bureau, suggesting that the economy is improving. But the mobility rate is still at historic lows.

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While American's mobility rate is still at historic lows, there are signs that people are on the move again.

Americans are moving again, following a recession-induced plunge in mobility. But the mobility rate is still at historic lows as housing costs and few job opportunities keep many Americans hunkered down.

Some 37.1 million Americans, or 12.5 percent of the population, moved in 2009, according to the Census Bureau. That’s up – barely – from 11.9 percent the previous year, the lowest the US mobility rate has been since the Bureau began tracking it in 1948.

A normal rate during good economic times, such as in the 1990s, is between 15 and 17 percent.

“What the [recession] has done is frozen people in place,” says Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the Carsey Institute and a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. “I’ve never seen changes of this magnitude in so short a period: It’s stunning for demographers.”

But the fact that the mobility rate is still very low is bad news for the economy, says Richard Florida, professor of US urban theory at the University of Toronto.

“Mobility is the cornerstone of the American economic backbone,” says Professor Florida, author of the new book “The Great Reset.” “Our economy has been premised on flexibility and mobility. Our workforce has always better able to move to where jobs and opportunities are.”

This dip in mobility, he says, makes it harder for the economy to recover.

Even the slight uptick the census recorded offered grim news. Of those who moved in 2009, 67.3 percent changed addresses within the same county. Renters were also five times more likely to move than homeowners.

This suggests that most moves were because of foreclosures and renters changing leases, not job growth.

Long-distance moves remained flat. Only 12.6 percent of all movers relocated to a different state – evidence that college grads and professionals were staying put rather than moving in search of new opportunities.

“It’s not good news,” says William Frey, chief demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It only ticked up for local moves, not long-distance moves. I think the latter is a more significant story than the former – more college-educated people, more young people trying to move up in their careers. They are the lifeblood of migration and growth.”

Another concerning although consistent trend: People with incomes below the poverty line were more likely to move locally – and less likely to make long-distance moves – than others.

“The lack of mobility is hitting hardest among the least advantaged,” Florida says. “This recession has been terribly hard on blue-collar men, people without college degrees. For them, it’s been a double whammy: Their jobs have disappeared, their equity has disappeared, and they’re more likely to be stuck.”

But Americans’ recent immobility may include a silver lining. Moving tends to take a toll on people. Staying put, by contrast, reaps social benefits like stronger family and community connections. Communities with lower levels of mobility tend to enjoy higher levels of trust and well-being, Mr. Frey says.

“People have their kids around them longer. There’s a stronger sense of community, but you’d like to think that would happen more for voluntary reasons,” he says.

Still, relatively speaking, Americans are highly mobile, says Florida.

“Americans still are among the most mobile people on earth,” he says. “It’s long been shown that the ability of the American economy to be innovative, productive, prosperous has lots to do with labor mobility.”

The US may not restore that mobility for a long time, says Professor Johnson of the University of New Hampshire.

“This has probably been a sobering experience for a lot of people,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll see a return to the exuberant levels of mobility we saw earlier.”


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