Why Don’t People Move Anymore?

Downtown Omaha, Nebraska.

Creative Commons photo by Raymond Bucko

America is a very big country, and traditionally it’s also been a very mobile country. But during the past 20 years, people have started moving much less frequently. There’s a lot of research on this, but none of it is all that convincing. Brad Plumer’s written up the latest stab at this from Raven Molloy, Christopher L. Smith, and Abigail Wozniak (PDF), and they confirm that obvious answers like the rise of two-earner families don’t really fit the trend data. Nor do demographics explain it. Instead, they say, people move less often as a subset of an overall decline in job-switching.

It’s a fascinating analysis of the data, but a little unsatisfactory as an answer to the question. “How come people don’t move to new states to get new jobs as much as they used to?” “Well, people don’t swtich jobs as much as they used to.” But: Why?

To put it sharply, the unemployment rate in the United States is 7.6 percent. But there are about 60 metropolitan areas that are 2 percentage points lower than that. That’s led by Midland, Texas, but it’s not all small, remote, oil boom towns. Honolulu is on the list, and so is Minneapolis and D.C. and Salt Lake City and Austin, Texas. Way back in 2002, Rilo Kiley promised to go to Omaha to work and exploit the booming music scene, and with an unemployment rate of just 4.3 percent in the Omaha area you’d think people would do it. At the same time, there are about 50 metro areas where the unemployment rate is still above 9.6 percent. That’s Las Vegas and the Inland Empire and small postindustrial cities like Dalton, Ga., and New Bedford, Mass. In the Beaumont, Texas, metro area 9.7 percent of the labor force can’t find a job. Less than three hours away in College Station, it’s 5.1 percent.

This kind of thing sometimes gets brought up in the spirit of “why don’t all these lazy bums just move?” That’s a terrible question. People have lots of good reasons for not moving, and in a healthy labor market the national average unemployment rate wouldn’t be 7.6 percent and people generally wouldn’t have to move to get a job. But the fact remains that if people were more mobile we would have less unemployment. And 20 or 30 years ago, people were more mobile than they are today. It’d be nice to understand what’s happening.

(If you’re in the market for advice, the official position of Moneybox continues to be that you should move to Minneapolis.)