Americans used to be exceptional for how often they moved. But that once-powerful source of both efficiency and upward mobility is now in steep decline.
If any young man is about to commence the world,” a reform-minded New York journalist wrote in 1838, “we say to him, publicly and privately, Go to the West.” Today, Horace Greeley’s advice comes down to us as “Go West, young man” and has been mythologized into a slogan of Manifest Destiny. But at the time Greeley wasn’t expressing any messianic desire to tame a savage continent. Rather, he was alarmed by how terrible economic conditions had become in New York.
The Panic of 1837—American history’s worst financial calamity until the Great Depression—had put one-third of the city’s labor force out of work. Greeley ran poor relief in one of the city’s wards, but available funds were meager and people were dying from lack of food and shelter. An angry mob became so enraged by the high price of bread that it rioted and looted the city’s flour merchants. Witnessing all this suffering and rage, Greeley concluded that the best solution would be for new entrants to the workforce to move someplace—anyplace—else. “Fly, scatter through the country, go to the Great West,” Greeley wrote. “Anything rather than remain here.”
Eventually, the economy improved in New York—in no small measure because so many people did scatter to other parts. Indeed, until quite recently, what most distinguished Americans from other peoples was the high percentage of us who were willing to move from anywhere to anywhere to seek a better financial toehold. The original Pilgrims and Utah’s Mormon settlers migrated for religious reasons, but they were exceptions; most American migrations have been driven by economics. Already by the mid-nineteenth century, the descendants of Puritans had abandoned New England’s played-out farms in such numbers that the forests were closing back in, prompting Herman Melville to compare the landscape to “countries depopulated by plague and war.”
Similarly, after the Civil War, huge, downtrodden populations left mid-Atlantic cities like Philadelphia or Baltimore to seek the living wages offered in then-frontier cities like St. Louis and Chicago. For others, even the prospect of busting sod on a homestead in the Oklahoma Territories beat trying to make a living in New Jersey.
In the early- and mid-twentieth century, the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South was a movement of tenant farmers fleeing Jim Crow for a chance at menial factory jobs in places like Cleveland and Detroit. More recently, the great flow in the opposite direction, from Rust Belt to Sun Belt, has seldom been motivated by any utopian political-religious dream; far more often, it’s been the desire to escape difficult economic circumstances.
This feature of American life has served the country’s economy well, if not always its culture. Writers from Henry David Thoreau to Theodore Dreiser to John Cheever may have decried the rootlessness in American life, but at whatever the price in urban anonymity or suburban anomie, the high mobility of American labor meant that a comparatively high share of the nation’s workforce migrated to wherever it could add the most economic value. As the population reduced its concentration in lower-wage areas and increased it in higher-wage areas, the effect was to gradually reduce inequality of income and opportunity, until something like an “American standard of living” emerged in the twentieth century. All told, according to a 2013 paper by Harvard economists Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag, approximately 30 percent of the drop in hourly wage inequality that occurred in the United States between 1940 and 1980 was the result of the convergence in wage income among the different states during this period.
In our own time, though, all of that has changed. Americans are moving far less often than in the past, and when they do migrate it is typically no longer from places with low wages to places with higher wages. Rather, it’s the reverse. That helps explain why, since the 1970s, income inequality has gone up and upward mobility has (depending on who you ask) either stagnated or gone down.
When people move, it’s usually not very far—as when, for example, a young couple moves to an apartment with an extra bedroom in a nearby suburb after their first child is born. But that’s not the kind of migration Greeley was talking about. For determining how many Americans move in search of economic opportunity, the best available measure comes from data on people moving across state lines that the Census Bureau has collected since shortly after World War II.
In the early 1950s, about 3.5 percent of all American households moved from one state to another in any given year. This proportion held up through the 1970s, and then started to fall around 1980. By 2006 interstate migration had dropped to 2 percent, and by 2010 to just 1.4 percent, or less than half the rate of the early 1950s. The latest available data, for 2011-12, shows interstate migration still stuck at a mere 1.7 percent. Though it may not square with our national self-image, America today is a nation of people who tend to stay put, with a population that is no more mobile than that of Denmark or Finland.
It would be reassuring to find out that the decline in American migration had innocuous causes. One possibility that comes to mind is the bulge in the number of middle-aged workers that occurred as some seventy-six million Baby Boomers passed through their forties, fifties, and sixties over the last three decades. Middle-aged people are less likely to move than young people, so a greater share of middle-aged people in the population should have driven down migration rates, right? But it turns out that the aging of the Boomers was only a minor factor, accounting for less than one-tenth of the decrease in interstate migration, according to a study by Raven Molloy of the Federal Reserve Board and others.
The larger reality is that Americans of all ages and stripes were becoming far less likely to move. So, for example, between the 1980s and the 2000s, the percentage of young adults (those aged eighteen to twenty-four) who migrated across state lines declined by 41 percent. Similarly, whether married or single, black or white, parent or childless, factory worker or knowledge worker, educated or not, Americans in any or all of these categories became far less likely to move than their counterparts a generation ago. Even immigrants from abroad are much less likely to move, once they get here, than were foreign immigrants in the past.
Some might suspect that the proliferation of two-earner couples is an explanation. Surely having a spouse who works can make it more difficult to pursue job opportunities in distant places. Yet the percentage of married households with two earners has hardly changed over the last thirty years. Instead, the relevant change is that today’s two-paycheck married households are about 46 percent less likely to move across state lines than were their counterparts in the 1980s.
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