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The Mystery of Our Declining Mobility

The Mystery of Our Declining Mobility
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Historically Americans are an extremely mobile people, but if they keep moving like they did the past five years, they may not keep that reputation for long. This month the U.S. Census released the latest migration data [PDF] from the Current Population Survey, which measures whether or not a person has moved within the past five years (via David King). The 2010 national five-year mobility rate was about 35 percent — the lowest since the Census began to collect data on the question.

Here are the five-year rates since 1970:

And here are the annual mobility figures going back to 1947:

That's not to say no one's moved in recent years. About 100 million people (aged 5 and up) lived in a different home or apartment in 2010 than they did in 2005, according to the Census. But that total is down from 107 million movers between 2000 and 2005, and the latest mobility rate is 10 points off the peak rate back in the mid-1970s. (One caveat: the survey only captures a single move during the five-year period, so it could underestimate mobility a bit.)

The Census has detailed data on who's moving. People in their late twenties had the highest mobility rate (about 65 percent), while Latinos and African Americans were the most mobile racial groups (each with rates of roughly 43 percent). Households making under $50,000 a year moved a bit more than those with incomes over $75,000. Renters moved much more than homeowners: at a rate of two-thirds to less than a quarter, respectively.

The bureau also knows where they're moving. Among people who did move, most stayed in the same county (61 percent, an all-time high). The share of Americans who moved from different states (nearly 16 percent) and from different counties within the same state (19 percent) both declined a few points. The South had a statistically significant net mobility gain of 1.1 million people, while the Northeast (832,000) and Midwest (350,000) lost people on net:

But the Census can't quite say why Americans are moving — or not moving, as the case appears. The obvious culprit is the recession: when it's hard to get a new job or sell your house, you aren't likely to move. That explanation doesn't entirely hold up against the data, however. For one thing, the unemployed moved at a higher five-year rate than people with jobs (48 to 37 percent). Also moving rates having been trending down in recent years for renters and homeowners alike (green and red lines, respectively):

At the Conversable Economist, Timothy Taylor points us to a 2011 study that found America's declining mobility to be a bit of an ongoing mystery. That study considers a number of theories, but finds each of them flawed. It concludes [PDF]:

By most measures, internal migration in the United States is at a 30-year low. Migration rates have fallen for most distances, demographic and socioeconomic groups, and geographic areas. The widespread nature of the decrease suggests that the drop in mobility is not related to demographics, income, employment, labor-force participation, or homeownership.

Taylor summarizes some of that study's proposed explanations. Two-income households might be less likely to move, but the share of such families has been pretty stable in the past 30 years. Telecommuting might explain some of the trend, but that's a more recent phenomenon, and its figures aren't definitive. Mobility might decrease as a result of places becoming less specialized — you can do any job anywhere — but that's hard to prove.

At the end of the day, writes Taylor, Americans might just be "shifting their preferences away from being willing to move."

All figures from the mobility data released by the U.S. Census.

Top image: B Calkins/Shutterstock.com

Keywords: Migration, Census, Mobility

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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