The disturbing decline in Americans’ geographic mobility

No more. In 2013, only 11.7 percent of Americans had moved in the previous year, with 7.5 percent staying in the same county and 2.3 percent remaining in the same state. A mere 1.6 percent left for a different state. These changes began in the late 1980s and seem to have accelerated in the 2000s.

Aside from a general couch-potato attitude — a reluctance to move — many theories have been advanced to explain this shift. Among them: an aging society (the middle-aged move less than the young); the rise of two-earner couples (if one loses a job, the other still has one); homeowners with “underwater” mortgages (if they sell their homes, they’ll suffer large losses); and the fading appeal of the South and West with lower costs and warmer weather.

All these sound plausible, but they’re mostly wrong, argues a new study by economists Raven Molloy and Christopher Smith of the Federal Reserve Board and Abigail Wozniak of the University of Notre Dame. A better explanation, they assert, is the job market. Jobs do cause people to move, but jobs are not as plentiful as before and wage premiums are lower. So people move less. (Their study is Working Paper 20065 from the National Bureau of Economic Research.)

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