In a new book on the social costs of economic inequality — a book otherwise reasonable and well-documented — appears a long paragraph that the authors clearly thought needed no footnote or references, because it was so obvious. It is a paragraph about the social costs of increasing residential mobility. It reads in part:
People used to grow up knowing, and being known by, many of the same people all of their lives. Although geographical mobility had been increasing for several generations, the last half-century has seen a particularly rapid rise.
The authors go on to list and to bemoan the consequences, such as people’s identities being “cast adrift” and now “endlessly open to question” (Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level, 2009, p. 42).
This premise of increasing mobility, alas, is wrong, at least for the United States. It is more than wrong — the truth is exactly the opposite: Geographical mobility has been on the decline for generations.
The story that the authors take for granted, that we are an ever-more restless society, is one of the most persistent myths about how America has changed in recent decades, and one that I’ve been dining on for over 30 years (e.g., here and here). It’s a handy explanation for everything from crime to political alienation to neighborhood litter, and, in these authors’ case, to identity crises.
In 2001, for example, the editorial page of the New York Times attributed recent changes in American family life in part to “the ever-growing mobility of Americans.” In 2008, an eminent psychiatrist explained a spurt in suicides by Americans’ “more frequent moves away from friends and relatives.”
As social historians know but almost no one else does, American residential mobility has been declining. It’s been declining since as far back as we can get good evidence about mobility. Almost every year since 1948, the Census Bureau surveys have counted the number of Americans who reported moving in the previous 12 months. This graph shows what that trend has been for the last six decades: Down.
1948 to 2008, however, is just a brief snapshot in time. We have only rough estimates of what happened before 1948, but lots of such estimates and the picture that emerges from the historical research looks something like this:
That is, while we cannot be sure of exactly what the rates of residential mobility were in the 19th century, we can be pretty sure they were much greater than they are now. That was an era of mass moves, unemployed men tramping the streets, and city families regularly moving every year on “moving day,” May 1.
What about how far – rather than how often – people moved? Don’t people move farther now? On average, no. (This paper by Patricia Kelly Hall and Steven Ruggles tells the tale.) But the question does point to an important qualifier: social class.
Americans in the upper reaches of society may well move around farther today than a few generations ago. Attending highly-ranked colleges, getting post-graduate training, having a professional career, and marrying another highly-educated professional leads people to make big moves, say, from one coast to the other and back (as I have). But, for most Americans, the twentieth century was one of settling down.
Why? The answer is uncertain, but here are two plausible suggestions. One is that modern transportation – first, streetcars and then automobiles – permitted workers to change jobs without changing homes. In the mid-19th century, a new job even in the same town often required relocating; now it does not.
Another reason, more profound, is that the dislocations of everyday life became less common. Historically, most moves followed a shock – a job loss, farm failure, injury or death to the breadwinner or spouse, fire or flood, eviction, and so on. (We have gotten a taste of that experience with the home foreclosure crisis.) By the latter part of the 20th century, more secure health, employment, and income, and the government safety net have reduced the big shocks of life – and have allowed average Americans to ride out those shocks that inevitably do come while staying in their own homes.
Another why question: Why does this image of growing rootlessness persist in the face of clear evidence to the opposite? That is a question that would lead to speculations about psychology, perceptions, politics, and other matters. (Another post, perhaps.) But one aspect of its persistence is that the image of modern “rootlessness” fits so well into the bigger image we have of modern versus “traditional” society. (I fear that this is what tripped up Wilkinson and Pickett.) As long as that dichotomy remains such a powerful device for making sense of the world, rootlessness will remain a powerful theme and hang around our discussions of social issues, pointing us in the wrong direction.
So, yes, inequality is increasing and is problematic; but, no residential mobility is not increasing and so is not problematic.