Americans Relocated At Record Low Rates In 2008

The NYT has some interesting figures on relocation within the country that the Census Bureau just released. It shows that fewer Americans moved in 2008 than in any year since 1962. Immigration was also the lowest in more than a decade.

The Census Bureau reported that the annual rate at which people moved dipped last year to 11.9 percent, compared with 13.2 percent in 2007 and a recent high of 20.2 percent in 1984-85. It was the lowest rate since the bureau began measuring mobility six decades ago.

The declines appeared to be directly related to the housing slump and the recession.

“It represents a perfect storm halting migration at all levels, since it involves deterrents in local housing-related moves and longer distance employment-related moves,” said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution.

Moves from one state to another plunged the most, to half the rate recorded at the beginning of the decade. There were fewer total moves than in any year since 1949-50, when returning veterans and others streamed to the suburbs and the nation’s population was about half of what it is today.

“It does show that the U.S. population, often thought of as the most mobile in the developed world, seems to have been stopped dead in its tracks due to a confluence of constraints posed by a tough economic spell,” Dr. Frey said.

A couple other interesting bits of data were contained in the report. In 2008 35.2 million people changed residences compared with 38.7 million the year before and 2.2 million people moved from principal cities to the suburbs. The South recorded a net gain in people while the Northeast lost the most but of interest, the West also registered a decline. That is a distinct trend shift.

One year of data does not a trend make, so it is entirely possible that we could see all of this reverse. If the recession involves as much of a sectoral shift as some postulate then relocation would be expected to sky rocket. If we have a sectoral shift and people balk or are chained to their houses by financial constraints then we have a problem. 

It’s also going to be interesting to watch these numbers from a demographic point of view. Much has been made of the Millennial generations affinity for staying close to family and friends as opposed to the Boomers propensity to chase employment opportunities. Whether that’s entirely true and holds up in the face of difficult or altered economic conditions remains very much to be seen.

Labor mobility has always been one of the strengths of the American economy. If we are losing that due to one or a number of sets of circumstances, that would be cause for concern.

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