Americans Aren't Moving

Americans are moving at the lowest rate since the government started keeping track, according to Census Bureau data released on Wednesday, as deep changes in the economy and the housing market increasingly freeze Americans in place.

The United States has long been one of the most mobile countries in the developed world. In the 1950s, about one-fifth of the American population moved each year. When factories would close, workers would move to other parts of the country to find jobs in new ones. Young people flocked to cities and rapidly growing suburbs, where jobs were plentiful and rent was cheap.

“In 1957 you could move to a flophouse in New York just to try it out for a while,” said Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University and author of “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.” “That doesn’t exist any more.”

These days, rents in many larger cities have exploded, making it much harder for a young person seeking better opportunities to afford to move. And low-wage jobs, after adjusting for the local cost of living, pay about the same everywhere.

The result is a nation where people move far less than they used to: Just 9.8 percent of Americans moved in the year ending in March, according to the newly released data. That was the smallest share since the Census Bureau started tracking it in 1947, and the first time it had fallen below 10 percent, said William Frey, senior demographer at the Brookings Institution.

“I keep thinking, ‘This is the year we’ll see a bit of an uptick,’ and it just doesn’t happen,” Mr. Frey said. He noted that the share of Americans who move each year now is about half of what it was in the 1950s.

The decline in moving rates has happened slowly, over many years, and marks a major shift in how Americans live. It is partly demographic: The country is aging, and older people are much less likely to move than younger people. But even younger people are moving less than before, and economists, who have been studying it for years, are still puzzling over the primary driver.

“The decline in migration is really widespread,” said Abigail Wozniak, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “It applies to all demographic groups — younger and older workers, renters and homeowners, more-educated and less-educated workers.”

The change is important, she said, but it is still too early to tell if it is good or bad.

“We still do not have quite enough information to know if this is worrying,” she said.

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