NPR logo Americans Are Moving Less Than They Used To. Don't Blame The Recession.

Americans Are Moving Less Than They Used To. Don't Blame The Recession.

Leaving trunk. Ann Heisenfelt/AP hide caption

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Ann Heisenfelt/AP

Leaving trunk.

Ann Heisenfelt/AP

One out of eight Americans moved this year, according to a report out this week from U.S. Census Bureau. That's up from last year's record low, but still much lower than it used to be. In the early '80s, roughly one in five Americans moved each year.

It's tempting to see the decline in the percentage of Americans who move each year as the product of the housing bust. After all, it's hard to move when your house is underwater.

But the rate has fallen for both renters and buyers. And unemployed people are more likely to move than people with jobs.

In fact, the rate at which people move has been declining steadily for decades, through housing booms and busts, periods of economic expansion and recession, through tamagotchi and beanie babies.

In a paper (PDF) published last year, a bunch of economists tried to figure out what has driven the decline. They didn't really come up with a clear answer. In a a blog post today, the economist Timothy Taylor walks through some of the possibilities:

...there are more two-earner families, and so when one person loses a job the household may be more reluctant to relocate. But this argument faces the problem that "the percentage of households with two earners has been quite stable over the last 30 years."

Yet another possibility "is that technological advances have allowed for an expansion of telecommuting and flexible work schedules, reducing the need for workers to move for a job." However, the data on telecommuting doesn't show that it is a large enough factor to explain the decline in mobility.

And yet another possibility "is that locations have become less specialized in the types of goods and services produced, making the types of available jobs more similar across space. ... A related idea is that the distribution of amenities has become more homogeneous across locations, making residence in any particular city less attractive." This explanation may have some truth in it, but it's proven difficult to gather data that would allow it to be tested in any definitive way.

Finally, it may just be that many Americans are shifting their preferences away from being willing to move.

For the most part, when people are willing to move — to find work, say, — the economy is more resilient and efficient. So if people are less willing to move than they used to be, that's a bad sign.