Americans are moving at the lowest rate on record.
Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty Images
Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Frozen in place: Americans moving at lowest rate on record

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

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The United States has long been one of the most mobile countries in the developed world. In the 1950s, about one-fifth of the U.S. population moved to a different community 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.”

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

The result is a nation in which people move far less than they used to: Just 9.8% of Americans said in 2019 that they had moved in the last year, 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%, said William Frey, senior demographer at the Brookings Institution.

“This is a really different economy than it used to be. It’s one where places that struggle continue to struggle.” — Jay Shambaugh, economics professor at George Washington University

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, Frey said, in particular after the Great Recession in 2008. This is especially the case for local moves — within a county — which comprise about 60% of all moves.

“It used to be that poorer places grew faster, but that’s gone,” said Jay Shambaugh, an economics professor at George Washington University. “This is a really different economy than it used to be. It’s one where places that struggle continue to struggle.”

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