Americans are not moving en masse because of the Great Recession, unlike the exodus from the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Instead, they are staying put more than they did before the downturn. The number of people in the country who relocated between spring 2007 and spring 2008 was greater than 35 million, but it was also 9 percent less than the year before. The rate of mobility, as the Census Bureau calls it, has been falling since the mid-1980s. But last year’s drop is more dramatic than the decrease in almost any other year in the previous two decades.
It’s not necessarily a bad sign, socially or economically speaking, when people move less. Over the longer term, the trend links up with more home ownership. It could also tie in to a greater attachment to place, a gratified embrace of stability. On the other hand, if people become more resistant to moving than they were in the past, that suggests they would be less willing or able to follow jobs wherever opportunity takes them. And that kind of hopping from place to place is a key feature of the nimble American economy.
I’m interested also in another, more amorphous question: Now that moving is less common, is it harder to take in stride? The answer, judging from the responses I got to my questions about uprooting connected to the recession, is that it all depends on the reason why. Some people were deeply dismayed by moves that signified for them a scaling back of aspiration. At the same time, I was struck by the stoicism of some of my correspondents, especially those who were moving not for themselves but for their families. They weren’t retreating to their parents’ homes in that time-honored, if fraught, mode of hiding out in your childhood bedroom. They were moving, or helping their parents move, because their family needed them.
Erin is an MBA graduate. She has a good job. Her husband did, too, until he was laid off recently. They own a house in Seattle. They also have two cars, two dogs, and no kids. They can pay their bills with her salary and what he’s collecting in unemployment insurance. It’s Erin’s mother-in-law who is in trouble. She had a second mortgage for her condo in Reno, Nev., that she treated as a revolving line of credit, while taking the money that Erin and her husband sent every month, using it to pay down the mortgage, and then spending it again. When her mortgage came due, so could a balloon payment of $25,000, Erin and her husband realized. “We were in shock,” Erin writes. “Just at the time that she should own her own house free and clear, she would lose it.”
Refinancing didn’t work. Erin and her husband moved her mother-in-law from Reno to their house. The moving expenses went on their credit cards. They hoped to sell the condo for $80,000 to pay off Erin’s mother-in-law’s debts—she paid nearly that much for it before the housing bubble—but the sagging market means the current price is probably more like $45,000. So no go.
Erin didn’t complain as she outlined all of this. Her husband is used to taking care of his mother—”He has been helping her make financial decisions since he was 10,” Erin writes. And so they are dealing. “I guess what it comes down to is that I could stew in resentment, but it wouldn’t change the situation. I get frustrated and annoyed, and have the occasional fit at my husband—usually over silly small things. That way, when the big stuff comes up, I can cope.”
Andie—not her real first name, and you’ll see why in a minute—is in the midst of a more vertigo-inducing parent-child role reversal. Her father’s business is ailing financially. Her mother works, too, but not for a high salary. Andie, who is 29, is the oldest child; she and her siblings grew up going to private school. Now Andie’s parents are falling $5,000 short every month. And so Andie decided to move back from the East Coast job and city she really loved to her parents’ West Coast home. She found a new job with an Internet startup, not in her field but the best she could do quickly. She is giving her parents $1,100 a month from her salary.
Actually, Andie is giving the money to her mother, because her father doesn’t know. “On some level does he know they’re in trouble? I don’t know. I’ve never talked with him about it,” she says. Andie thinks of the payments as rent, but her mother hates the idea that she would ever charge one of her children to live in her house and prefers to say that ‘Andie is helping them through a difficult time.’ ” Andie is paying for other expenses as well, like a family lunch with her grandmother in the hospital for Memorial Day, though she’s not sure how long she can keep that up.
The hardest part, perhaps, is coming to terms with her parents’ limitations. “I can’t make them into frugal people who are good financial planners,” she said. And so even as she funnels her salary their way, she watches as her parents hold on to certain upper-middle class habits. Every month, they host a big dinner for the extended family. “I think my mother would rather declare bankruptcy than compromise on that.” When her mother talked to Andie’s younger sister about going to public school for her senior year, “My sister bawled and said, ‘How come everyone else got to go to this school we all went to? And that made my mom feel terrible and she said, ‘OK, we’ll figure out some way.’ “
You can dismiss this as privileged whining, I suppose. No one is going homeless. But it seems to me that her family’s crisis, however self-manufactured, presents all kinds of delicate complexity for Andie to sort through. She moved home to help her parents because she couldn’t stand to see them slide down the financial chute. “If I weren’t here to help, I couldn’t function,” she says. “It would consume my thoughts.” And so she is home, and she is helping, but that means shoring up a lifestyle for her parents and her younger sister that she knows is probably unsustainable. “I don’t think my parents have long-term plans, and I don’t know what my future reality will be because I don’t know what will happen with them.” That is a lot of subsuming of one’s own identity. When Andie moved, she left behind her independence and re-entered her parents’ world. And yet even as she is close by and supportive, she has to hold herself apart because she can see the frailty of their choices. Not easy.
And so it was a bit of a relief to hear from another reader, Jen, who wrote with a classic story of moving in pursuit of good old opportunity. She graduated from the law school at American University in 2006, and moved from Washington, D.C., back to Cleveland, where she grew up. Her boyfriend, whom she started dating in her hometown, finished an MBA program there. But he could not find a job in their chosen city. Instead he got a job in Denver, and they moved there together last spring. Jen found a job at a law firm. “Since our move, we’ve become engaged, bought a house, bought a new car, and are planning an October 2009 wedding,” she writes. “While we miss our families, we realized that to have a chance at the life we really wanted, we needed to find a better economic climate. … As much as I’d like to be altruistic, I also know that I need to be able to make a life for myself.” That’s the familiar American new-horizons spirit. It may not be the typical story of this recession. But at least it’s not gone entirely.
Thanks for all the great e-mails, and keep them coming. Next question: Has the downturn changed a friendship that matters to you, in a profound or smaller but telling way? Or your relationship with a sibling? Send your responses to me at email@example.com. E-mail may be quoted in Slate unless the writer stipulates otherwise. If you want to be quoted anonymously, please let me know.
This article also appears in Double X.