Low Mobility Rate Has Consequences For Families And The Economy

Nov 22, 2019
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So we like to think of ourselves as a highly mobile society, but these days Americans are staying put more than ever before. And this has consequences for families, communities and the economy, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Fewer than 1 out of 10 Americans packed up and moved last year. That's the lowest rate of mobility since the Census Bureau started keeping track more than seven decades ago. In the 1980s, people were about twice as likely to move as they are now.

WILLIAM FREY: I continue to be surprised - every year these numbers come out, and they go down lower.

HORSLEY: Brookings demographer William Frey says the decline in mobility is particularly striking a decade after the Great Recession, when people are no longer stuck in houses they can't sell. Most people who do move each year stay in the same county. Frey says these local moves are often driven by family circumstances.

FREY: Typically, younger adults move the most. But when those younger adults are stuck in place and are taking their time to get married and having children and buying homes, that has a lot to do with this.

HORSLEY: Professional movers have noticed the downturn, and no wonder - Scott Michael, who heads the American Moving and Storage Association, says any change of address is stressful.

SCOTT MICHAEL: And it's not all about the move; it's all about finding new friends for your family and your children, finding a new grocery store because everything changes when you move, and you need to deal with all of those different things.

HORSLEY: People who move long distances typically do so for job-related reasons. So that drop probably reflects larger changes in the labor market. Maybe technology is enabling more people to work remotely, without the hassle of relocation. Or maybe workers just don't think it's worth it to pack up and move cross-country for a job. Economist Abigail Wozniak says it's too soon to say whether this long-term decline in mobility is a problem.

ABIGAIL WOZNIAK: My concern is less that workers are making mistakes by not taking advantage of opportunities that are out there; my concern is more that somehow these opportunities are either fewer and farther between, or they've become more difficult to access or take advantage of over time.

HORSLEY: Wozniak began study mobility when she was a professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Earlier this year, though, she took a new job 500 miles away with the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis. In other words, she's now part of a steadily shrinking pool of footloose workers.

WOZNIAK: So now I've lived it, and it's super hard. It's caused me to reflect on that a little bit.

HORSLEY: Throughout this country's history, movers have shaped the United States. We may have to adjust to a population that's more likely to stay home.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.