Americans used to move a lot; now they don’t. It could be causing a social crisis

By Jerusalem Demsas, Vox, February 24, 2022

“ ‘Americans, it seems, are finding themselves increasingly locked into places that they wish to escape,’ two psychologists grimly proclaim in a new paper studying the cultural effects of residential stagnation. Study authors Nicholas Buttrick and Shigehiro Oishi cite research showing that when you compare today’s Americans to people in the 1970s, people who said they intended to move from a place are 45 percent less likely to have actually done so.

“The paper finds that as residential mobility has gone down, so have ‘levels of happiness, fairness, and trust among Americans.’

“The authors don’t identify any causal factors.

“But I, and many economists, argue this is because of walls of red tape that states have put up. Specifically, … zoning restrictions on how land can be used [which ‘severely limit the supply of housing, particularly in in-demand labor markets’], and occupational licensing requirements … [which] can discourage people from moving to states where regulations make it costly to keep doing their jobs. 

“[In addition, as] Yale Law professor David Schleicher details, ‘differing eligibility standards for public benefits, public employee pensions, homeownership tax subsidies, state and local tax laws, and even basic property law doctrines’ make it hard to move from declining regions.

“While stability can sound great in theory, what it means in practice is different depending on the circumstances. A stable white-picket-fence suburb could be great for some people, but if ‘stable’ means trapped in a high-poverty neighborhood, that’s a policy failure. Research has found that while declining interstate mobility may be due to changing preferences for white Americans, Black Americans are increasingly unable to move when they expect to.

“And there’s an asymmetry — while being forced to stay somewhere is almost entirely negative, being forced to move can actually benefit those who relocate. 

“America is aging and biasing our political and cultural institutions against risk-taking, new ideas, and new groups of people. Further tilting the scales against openness and dynamism could mean dwindling social and economic mobility and generations of Americans growing up in a country where freedom of movement belongs only to the rich.”

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