Thursday, August 03, 2017

Mobility, especially rural, is at historic low; affects national and local economies, and politics

Americans have always been a mobile crowd, prone to move to other communities or states for better opportunities in times of economic stress. But that's changing. "The overall mobility of the U.S. population is at its lowest level since measurements were first taken at the end of World War II, falling by almost half since its most recent peak in 1985," Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg report for The Wall Street Journal. That drop is affecting everything from the economy to the political climate.
Wall Street Journal map (click on it to view a larger version)
In rural areas, though "lots of struggling residents see leaving as the best way to improve their lives, a surprising share remain stuck in place," Adamy and Overberg write. "For a number of reasons—both economic and cultural—they no longer believe they can leave."

The decline in rural mobility is caused by a number of practical factors, they report: Housing costs are a big barrier to entry: many rural Americans just can't afford to live in the city without a substantial nest egg or a good job already waiting. Government aid programs and community support may also make some people unwilling or unable to leave. In the small town of West Branch, Michigan, where one in 10 residents live in subsidized low-income housing, civic leaders say "extended networks of friends and family and a tradition of church groups that will cover heating bills, car repairs and septic services—often with no questions asked—also dissuade the jobless and underemployed from leaving."

A trend toward requiring state-level job licensing may also discourage people from moving across state lines for a better job in their field. More than one quarter of U.S. workers now require a license to do their jobs. "Janna E. Johnson and Morris M. Kleiner of the University of Minnesota found in a nationwide study that barbers and cosmetologists—occupations that tend to require people to obtain new state licenses when they relocate—are 22 percent less likely to move between states than workers whose blue-collar occupations don’t require them," the Journal reports.

Cultural issues may play just as important a role in dampening rural mobility as practical considerations. "Tom W. Smith, who runs the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, says that cities’ welcoming attitudes toward immigrants from abroad, same-sex marriage and secularism heighten distrust among small-town residents with different values. That widens the cultural gulf," the Journal reports. And people may feel overwhelmed and isolated when they move to the city, as West Branch woman Taylor Tibbetts did after trying college in South Carolina. She came back home after just a week, but laments her inability to leave: "I can’t be the kid that just stays here forever."

Yale University law professor David Schleicher told the Journal that "this drop in mobility is not only keeping rural residents from climbing a ladder to better livelihoods, it is choking off the labor supply for employers in areas where jobs are plentiful. This limits the economic growth that naturally occurs when people and capital cluster together." The "brain drain" that happens when rural residents move to bigger cities for better jobs has always hurt rural economies, but keeping people home isn't helping either, because the high-paying jobs aren't available in rural areas. Staying put for years or generations can also make communities more insular, contributing to the deepening political divide.

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