Rooted or Stuck?

Despite common notions of an increasingly “rootless” and hypermobile American society, annual rates of both long-distance and short-distance movement have fallen by 50 percent since the mid-1900s. My dissertation research suggests that roughly one-half of the decline in long-distance migration between states is attributable to population aging. Other contributing factors include increasing racial and ethnic diversity and the rise in dual-earner households.

Mobility Decline
American Migration and Mobility Decline (Current Population Survey, 1948-2015)

Mobility rates have declined for (nearly) all Americans, regardless of demographic or socioeconomic status, leading many in the emerging literature to conclude that Americans are simply more “rooted” in place. But my research uncovers important group variations in the timing, magnitude, and rate of increasing “rootedness”. Non-Latino whites have seen much more dramatic declines in mobility than other ethnoracial groups, particularly when they rent rather than own their homes. Rates of mobility among the young (under age 34) are also pronounced.These trends suggest the need for novel explanations of migration and mobility declines beyond the notion of cultural “rootedness”.

Expectation Trends
Gross Trends in Inter-Dwelling Mobility Expectations for Black and White Householders (Panel Study of Income Dynamics, 1970-2011)

One exciting direction is to understand how the desire or expectation of movement among Americans has changed over time. If Americans are, indeed, simply more “rooted”, one might assume that the expectation or desire for mobility would decline alongside actual movements. The data do not support this common-sense expectation. While the expectation of mobility has declined in-step with actual mobility outcomes among non-Latino white householders, mobility expectations have actually increased among non-Latino black householders.

Net Expectation Trends
Net Trends in the Expectation of Inter-Dwelling Mobility for Black and White Householders (Panel Study of Income Dynamics, 1970-2011)

A large portion of the racial divergence in the expectation of inter-dwelling mobility is attributable to racial differences in socioeconomic status and housing tenure. Once these and other factors associated with neighborhood satisfaction and mobility expectation formation are taken into account, a strikingly different trend emerges. Dramatic economic, labor force, and housing market shifts since 1970 have placed downward pressure on expectations of mobility, particularly among white householders. Once these shifts are taken into account, the expectation of mobility has actually increased over the course of the decline. This increase is much more pronounced among black householders, who since the 1970s have witnessed the dismantling of legal and normative barriers enforcing racial residential segregation.

More puzzling still are trends in the ability of Americans to act on expressed expectations to either move or stay. The figures below show trends in the probability that white and black householders realize their expectation to move, remain stuck despite the expectation of mobility, are forced to move despite no expectation of mobility, or remain rooted. These trends reflect probabilities after taking into account the social, economic, and housing market shifts since 1970 that influence the translation of mobility expectations into actual mobility.

Net Probabilities of “Realized” or “Forced” Mobility and “Stuck” or “Rooted” Immobility for Black and White Householders (Panel Study of Income Dynamics, 1970-2011)

There is no evidence in these trends that white and black Americans are increasingly “rooted”. White householders are no more likely to remain rooted now than in 1970 and black householders are much less likely to remain rooted over the course of the decline. Rather, both white and, to a greater extent, black householders are increasingly likely to remain “stuck” – to expect or desire to move but fail to realize those expectations.

My research implicates broad and structural social, demographic, and economic shifts in the U.S. as the key drivers of migration and mobility decline. After accounting for these shifts, however, temporal trends and large racial gaps in the probability of remaining rooted or stuck in place have important implications for both people and places. At the individual and familial levels, the increasing inability of Americans to move when they expect to impacts wages, the pursuit of quality neighborhoods, and the ability people to “vote with their feet”. Stagnant migration and mobility also slows progress toward racial, ethnic, and economic integration, promotes regional wage disequilibrium, and slows economic growth at the local and national levels.