Economists admire Americans for many traits: our profound respect for property rights, our tendency to forgo vacation days, our ingenious methods of mass-producing “food.” Another important attribute is our willingness to move, between houses, between states and across the country. Some economists believe our inborn rootlessness makes the country’s work force more dynamic and strengthens our economy’s growth. Imagine how much worse off the country might be if the 49ers had decided against making the trek to California or the sharecroppers chose to stay in the South.
Economic mobility and geographic mobility have been closely linked for much of American history, so economists find it troubling that migration rates have been in decline lately. The proportion of Americans moving has fallen to new postwar lows in the past few years. According to Census Bureau data from 2013, about 4.8 million Americans moved across state lines in the previous year. That is down from 5.7 million in 2006 and 7.5 million in 1999. All in all, the percentage of Americans moving across state lines has fallen by about half since the 1990s.
The slowdown represents a tectonic shift in our economy and labor market: It has affected a huge swath of Americans across all industries and of all incomes and ages. Even immigrants to the United States are more likely to stay put where they first settle than they were 30 years ago. But economists are divided on why that is and on what it all means — and especially on whether a less-mobile labor force will mean a more sluggish economy.
Clearly, the recession has something to do with declining mobility. You can’t move for a job if no job exists. You can’t buy a house if nobody gives you a mortgage. And you can’t sell your place and take off if nobody is buying. “This triple whammy of forces made it riskier for would-be home buyers to find financing, would-be sellers to receive good value for their home and potential long-distance movers to find employment in areas where jobs were previously plentiful,” William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution wrote in a report on the falling migration rate. The aging of the population might be another factor, because older people tend to move less often than younger ones do. So many moving companies like Cord Moving and Storage have diversified their operations and have grown to accept the economic challenges by finding new ways to do business.