Frozen in Place: Why America Isn’t Moving

Frozen in Place: Why America Isn’t Moving

S. E. Williams

When author and journalist Naomi Wolf asked rhetorically, “What, after all, is the narrative of ‘the American Dream’?” she partly defined it as the historical discourse expressed during the continuous waves of internal (and external) migration, expansion and reforms that are the story of America. 

The high rates of mobility in this country helped distinguish the American economy from those in other developed nations and helped make it the envy of the world; however, something is happening that may change that. 

Data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that for the fifth straight year, the number of Americans choosing to relocate has continued to decline. According to the data, migration has reached its lowest level since World War II. In 2017, the number of people moving dropped to 11 percent from a high of 20 percent in 1985—census data shows a steady decline over the last thirty years. 

Why are people staying put? Are they stuck by choice or circumstance? A recent Los Angeles Times report noted that some economists blame the slowdown on a less dynamic and fluid labor market, in addition to other contributing factors.

Aging may play a part in the mobility slow down. For example, in California, by the year 2030, one in five Californians will be older than 65. Not only is the population aging, but the country’s birth rate is simultaneously declining. Provisional population data released by the Centers for Disease Control in June showed America’s fertility rate had reached an historic low. 

The country’s birthrate, like its mobility rate, has been falling for years. When the recent birthrate results were reported, some experts expressed concern that, as a result of the declining birth rate, the country could face economic and cultural turmoil. The declining birth rate is partly due to a decline in teen pregnancy—certainly good news—but experts also believe a country’s birthrate is among the most important measures of demographic health. If it falls too low, America may not be able to replace its aging workforce. 

During the Depression there was massive migration from dust-bowl states in the south and mid-west to California; however, different circumstances produced different results during and after the Great Recession. The collapse of the stock market, falling housing prices, high foreclosure rates, and sky-rocketing unemployment had a profound impact on migration during the Recession, evidenced by census data. 

A key factor regarding historical migration patterns was certainly that older people were more likely to stay in place, while young people starting families were more inclined to mobility, as they are willing to relocate for jobs, affordable housing, and the like. 

As noted in a 2016 report titled, How the Great Recession Changed U.S. Migration Patterns, experts expressed their belief that it “froze people in place” because many either lost or were stuck with houses they could not sell, retirement plans that declined in value, and a precarious labor market that provided little if any incentive to relocate. 

Although it has taken years, since the end of the Recession, job opportunities for young adults have continued to improve, yet these young people are not upgrading their housing options locally. This may be due in part to the rising cost of housing. California eliminated its Redevelopment Agencies in 2011, impacting the availability of affordable housing in the state and particularly in the Inland Empire. 

The Inland region continues to have a shortage of affordable housing units and, due to the number of low income renter households in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, many are forced to use a larger share of their income to pay rent than they should. The federal government recommends housing should not consume more than 30 percent of one’s monthly income. 

A report by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies concluded that, in 2015, nearly 57 percent of renter households in the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metro area were what economists identified as “cost-burdened,”—they use more than 30 percent of their income to pay for housing. The report also noted that 30.6 percent of local renters were actually severely cost burdened—paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing. Not a lot has changed in this area in regards to housing since 2015. 

Researchers have identified at least two other trends impacting mobility: a slow-down in the creation of new jobs and, for the most part, in the elimination of jobs. When new jobs are not being created and employees are not being laid-off, there is no impetus to relocate for work. And, anyone considering relocation for other reasons are deterred when the prospects for employment opportunities are limited. 

The severe economic impact of the Great Recession caused a slowdown in overall migration and what is defined as a convergence in county migration patterns. The housing crisis that resulted in the Recession also decreased overall U.S. migration. 

Population shifts in this country are often very specific and usually boil down to nuances abut policy, place, and demographics. In addition, population shifts occur within states—certainly good news for the Inland region. As reported by Forbes in June, “Certain policies that prevent Los Angeles from achieving livability for all have driven people to the state’s Inland Empire.” 

Forbes then noted, “America’s largest county-to-county population shift between 2007 and 2011 occurred out of Los Angeles County, and into San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, with 35,000 more people moving there than in the opposite direction.” As a result of this migration, the Inland Empire is now one of the nation’s fastest-growing economies, making the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario area America’s 13th-largest Metropolitan Statistical Area, placing it ahead of Seattle, San Diego, and Denver. 

The report was also quick to note that people are moving to the Inland region primarily because the housing is so affordable, yet, as noted earlier in this piece, the Inland area housing market is tight and finding affordable housing is the area is a challenge. 

There are economists who consider California an anomaly because some of the state’s poorest cities, like San Bernardino, are actually among its fastest growing. 

With the Inland area projected to grow, an increase in affordable housing stock could help shield the region from the projected woes certain to come with continued declines in mobility on a national level.

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