Americans see themselves as people on the move. When the going gets tough, or when opportunity beckons, we get up and go. We move around a lot.
Actually, we don’t—or don’t nearly as much as we used to. The percentage of Americans moving every year is less than that of half a century ago and down significantly since the early 1990s.
Some of that decline is a response to the economic cycle. Contrary to widespread impression, mobility tends to decline in economic depressions.
The Okies moving from the Dust Belt to the Central Valley of California made a big impression in the 1930s because they were the exception, not the rule. Most Americans stayed put, eating vegetables raised in their gardens or window boxes and making do as best they could.
The vast movements to the western frontier had ended decades earlier and farm-to-factory migration went on pause. Foreign immigration was almost nonexistent, even below the low quotas set in the 1924 restrictive immigration act.
Then, during World War II, Americans moved around a lot, serving in the military, working in defense plants, leaving behind farm counties whose populations peaked in the 1940 Census.
It became a habit. In the postwar years, millions of whites moved to California, the golden state they had seen in the war and the movies, while one-third of American blacks moved from the segregated rural South to what they believed was “the promised land” of the industrial urban North.
You can see in the statistics similar movement away from the coal-and-steel and auto belts in response to factory closings during the recessions of 1979-83. Laid off autoworkers in Detroit bought copies of the Sunday Houston Chronicle to scan help wanted ads. Steelworkers in Pittsburgh and coal miners in West Virginia rented U-hauls for points south and west.
You haven’t seen similar mobility in the slow-growth years of this century. There is heavy domestic out-migration from high-cost, high-immigration metro New York, Chicago and Los Angeles to the interior. But people in the Rust Belt have been staying put.
To understand why, read Ron Bailey’s riveting Reason article about his family’s ancestral home in McDowell County, West Virginia. It was the nation’s No. 1 coal producing county in 1950, when the Baileys left. Many others did too: McDowell County’s population declined from 98,000 in 1950 to 22,000 in 2010.
But few people are leaving now. Even though those who remain are in miserable shape. McDowell County has the lowest male life expectancy of any American county—it has a high percentage of opioid and heroin addiction; only about half of the children are raised in two-parent families.
It also has a very high dependency on government. As Bailey reports, 46 percent of all personal income comes from Social Security Old Age and Disability benefits (some 9 percent of West Virginia adults get Disability payments), food stamps and other federal programs.
McDowell County is a prime example of the dysfunctional communities that have caused the increase, identified by economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case, in mortality rates of middle-aged white Americans.
Government benefits, even federal benefits, are not readily transferable, and tend to keep beneficiaries stuck in place. They often can’t obtain jobs in growth areas because of occupational licensing laws or drug testing, and they aren’t interested in competing for jobs with low-wage immigrants jammed into expensive housing in coastal metro areas.
Labor market economic theory posits that workers will move to jobs. But history teaches that mobility is not just a matter of economic calculation. For most people, staying put is the default mode. They only take the unusual step of moving to pursue dreams or escape nightmares.
They don’t move where they think they are not wanted. Only 2 million black and white Southerners moved to the higher-pay North between 1865 and 1940, even as 30 million European immigrants streamed there. Southerners considered the North a nightmarishly alien territory; Europeans sought escape from the nightmare of second-class status in multi-ethnic empires.
The World War II experience convinced a generation or two of Americans that they could realize their dreams by getting up and going. But the war ended 71 years ago, and the postwar years are dimming in the rear-view mirror.
Some Americans are still on the move. But many seem stuck in nightmare settings that they seem unable to escape.
Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.