Why are Americans less likely to move to better opportunities than they used to be? The Wall Street Journal reports:
When opportunity dwindles, a natural response—the traditional American instinct—is to strike out for greener pastures. Migrations of the young, ambitious and able-bodied prompted the Dust Bowl exodus to California in the 1930s and the reverse migration of blacks from Northern cities to the South starting in the 1980s.
Yet the overall mobility of the U.S. population is at its lowest level since measurements were first taken at the end of World War II, falling by almost half since its most recent peak in 1985.
In rural America, which is coping with the onset of socioeconomic problems that were once reserved for inner cities, the rate of people who moved across a county line in 2015 was just 4.1%, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. That’s down from 7.7% in the late 1970s.
One particular problem with today's immobility is that people find themselves in areas where jobs are dwindling and pay tends to be lower. Why don't they move to where the jobs are? This comprehensive article for the Journal by Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg points to a few factors:
For many rural residents across the country with low incomes, government aid programs such as Medicaid, which has benefits that vary by state, can provide a disincentive to leave. One in 10 West Branch [Mich.] residents lives in low-income housing, which was virtually nonexistent a generation ago.
And then there are regulations that discourage mobility:
While small-town home prices have only modestly recovered from the housing market meltdown, years of restrictive land-use regulations have driven up prices in metropolitan areas to the point where it is difficult for all but the most highly educated professionals to move....
Another obstacle to mobility is the growth of state-level job-licensing requirements, which now cover a range of professions from bartenders and florists to turtle farmers and scrap-metal recyclers. A 2015 White House report found that more than one-quarter of U.S. workers now require a license to do their jobs, with the share licensed at the state level rising fivefold since the 1950s.
Brink Lindsey wrote about both land-use regulations and occupational licensing as examples of “regressive regulation”—regulatory barriers to entry and competition that work to redistribute income and wealth up the socioeconomic scale—in his Cato White Paper, "Low-Hanging Fruit Guarded by Dragons: Reforming Regressive Regulation to Boost U.S. Economic Growth."
The Journal notes that
the lack of mobility has become a drag on the entire U.S. economy.
“We’re locking people out from the most productive cities,” says Peter Ganong, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Chicago who studies migration. “This is a force that widens the urban-rural divide.”
Ganong made similar points in a Cato Research Brief, "Why Has Regional Income Convergence in the U.S. Declined?"
Declining mobility hurts U.S. innovation and economic growth and widens the rural-income culture gap. Government regulation plays a major role in declining mobility. But as Lindsey noted, those regulations are "guarded by dragons"—"the powerful interest groups that benefit from the status quo, all of which can be counted upon to defend their privileges tenaciously." Despite the potential for agreement by right, left, and libertarian policy analysts on the problems with regressive regulation, all those wonks together may be no match for organized dentists, barbers, massage therapists, and homeowners who perceive that they benefit from keeping others out.
Following Trump’s electoral success in rustbelt states, the spotlight has been on white, rural, post-industrial poverty. J.D. Vance, author of the now-famous memoir Hillbilly Elegy, discussed some possible explanations for rural poverty yesterday in a podcast. In the interview, he suggests that geographic (im)mobility is partly to blame for the erosion of areas like Appalachia: the poor simply aren’t migrating to jobs.
Vance is right that Americans have limited interest in relocating, and are relocating less than before. According to calculations using University of Chicago data, the proportion of individuals unwilling to relocate for work is high: 42% of Americans say they will not move within the United States for work, and 68% of Americans will not move outside the country for work. A full quarter (25%) of Americans would not consider traveling further for a job, even if the decision resulted in unemployment. Meanwhile, Census data suggests that relocation—whether inter-state, inter-county, or intra-county—is down (Figure 1). 2016 had the lowest relocation rate in seventy years (Figure 2).
Figure 1. Type of Move, 1948–2016
Figure 2: Number of Movers and Mover Rate, 1948–2016
Why are people relocating less than ever? One explanation Vance misses is that government policy gets in the way. For example, research provides evidence that land use regulations put pressure on housing prices in high-opportunity areas, which in turn eliminates the fiscal rewards of relocation for the poor and unskilled. Tragically, this means low-income Americans are trapped in job deserts with little in the way of opportunities, amenities, or hope.
You can listen to more of Vance’s interview regarding the causes of white, rural, post-industrial poverty, here.
 Author’s own.
Wednesday's Wall Street Journal contains a great page 3 article on how stricter land use regulations are slowing the growth of housing in areas that need it most. Laura Kusisto reports on a developer's fight to build middle-class housing in downtown San Francisco, but she notes that similar problems can be seen in wealthy communities from New York and Connecticut to San Diego and Portland, Ore. She also cites academic research on the topic:
According to research by Daniel Shoag, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, and Peter Ganong, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a decadeslong trend in which the income gap between the poorest and richest states steadily closed has been upended by growth in land-use regulations.
Moving to a wealthier area in search of job opportunities has historically been a way to promote economic equality, allowing workers to pursue higher-paying jobs elsewhere. But those wage gains lose their appeal if they are eaten up by higher housing costs. The result: More people stay put and lose out on potential higher incomes.
For on-the-ground reporting, you need newspapers. But you could have read about that paper twice in Cato Institute publications. Regulation magazine editor Peter Van Doren wrote about it in Winter 2013-2014 in his "Working Papers" column on new research (page 78).
And just two months ago a summary version of the paper appeared in the Research Briefs in Economic Policy series edited by Jeff Miron, director of economic studies.
I hope state and local policymakers will take note of the findings in this paper.
Stay tuned to the Cato Institute for more ahead-of-the-curve ideas.