What’s Behind the Declining American Mobility Rate?

As this site often notes, the United States is changing in a variety of ways – racially, culturally and economically. This week New York Times columnist David Brooks noted the decline in mobility among Americans as yet another indicator and argued that the country had become “insecure,” “risk averse” and even fatalistic about its future.

We at the ACP agree with Mr. Brooks about the mobility trend, but believe his theories about what it means are, at best, something of a reach. Americans may be more insecure about the future – indeed, the last recession and its fallout could give anyone that concern – but the decrease in American mobility are more likely about long-term urbanization and changes in American communities like the ones we see in the ACP.

First, there is nothing particularly new about the declining mobility rate. It’s been dropping pretty steadily since a spike in 1984, when it reached about 20%, dropping to about 12% today, as these numbers show. So this isn’t a sudden loss in confidence of among Americans. Or rather, if dropping mobility is about a loss confidence, it is about a slow, steady loss of confidence.

And there may be better reasons for that drop in mobility including a vast urbanization of the population in recent decades. In 1980, the U.S. population was split between urban and rural locales 74% urban to 26% rural, according to Census. If you move the clock all the way to the time Mr. Brooks cites, 1950, the breakdown was 64% urban to 36% rural. In 2010, the breakdown was 81% urban to 19% rural. Today only about 15% of U.S. population resides in rural counties.

Some of those numbers are the result of urban places growing, but much of the change has occurred as people have left rural locations for more urban ones – particularly young people. Rural America isn’t just getting smaller as a percentage of U.S. population, it is getting smaller in real terms.

In other words, the urbanization of the United States over the last 60 years means that there simply are fewer people left to move to urban locales. There are fewer people leaving from small towns to make it in the “big city” because there are simply fewer people in small towns.

Of course, there is the question about moves between urban locations – from metro New York to metro Chicago or from Cleveland to Phoenix. And this is where the breakdown from the American Communities Project helps tell the story.

In his column, Mr. Brooks writes of how the country is now at “historic lows” for geographic mobility: “If we could induce more people to Go West! (or South, East or North) in search of opportunity, maybe the old future-oriented mind-set would return.”

But the changes in the economy and culture of the United States over the last few decades suggest such grand moves are not necessarily the answer. If one is looking for a job, the answer may not be to “Go West!” but rather to “Drive to the West Side of the City!”, where a national or regional company has an office that is hiring. Taking that job does not need to involve uprooting oneself.

Consider some of these numbers.

The most recent unemployment rate for Philadelphia, a Big City in the ACP, is 8.4%. But next door in Montgomery County, PA, an Urban Suburb, it’s only 5.1%. The unemployment rate in Stanislaus County, CA, a Hispanic Center, was 12.5%, but next door, in Santa Clara County, a Big City, it was 5.7%. Even around struggling Detroit, you could go from Wayne County, where the unemployment rate is 9%, to neighboring Oakland County, an Urban Suburb where the unemployment rate is 6.7% or to neighboring Washtenaw County, a College Town, where the unemployment rate is 5.2%.

The evolution and regional diversification of the U.S. economy over the past 30 years means it is increasingly driven by large metro areas across the country, Big Cities (in pink on the map), Urban Suburbs (in dark orange) and even Exurbs (in yellow) in the ACP, that offer jobs in a variety of areas.

Even the housing boom before the last recession was not exclusively a regional phenomenon. Yes, there were big booms around Phoenix and Las Vegas and Riverside County California, but there were plenty of good construction jobs to be had all over, particularly in exurban locales across the country.

That’s not to say that regional booms locked into a specific place are a relic of history. Talk to the people of North Dakota about that as people flood the state to work in energy. But those regional booms don’t seem to as common in the current economy. Our economic engines aren’t spread evenly across the country, but they are spread much more evenly around types of places – big metro areas – which is why you see those unemployment spreads above.

And when you view the numbers this way, the dropping mobility rate doesn’t seem to be as big deal or a sign of growing insecurity. After all, one probably only wants to “Go West!” when one knows there is a better job waiting there or when one has no hope for a good job one’s current home.

With the U.S. population increasingly packed into urban centers that are the nation’s economic drivers, that’s less likely to be the case.

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