Americans have stopped moving! And the economy is to blame. While this isn't particularly revelatory, our partners at the New York Times are reporting that fewer Americans moved last year than in any year since 1962 and it seems to be directly related to the housing slump. The numbers also suggest that Americans were unable or unwilling to follow any job opportunities that may have existed around the country, as they have in the past. Sam Roberts writes about demographics for the New York Times and joins us to maybe help explain to us why we have stopped moving.
John Hockenberry: So, we started this hour with a conversation with our friend John Fox, who's been out of work for well over a year in the construction trade, and is trying to find work, he says there are few jobs in his area in North Carolina that he hasn't already applied for. He'd like to move to where the jobs are, but he can't. He can't sell his house. He's trapped. Our partners at the New York Times are reporting this morning that a lot of Americans are in John Fox's situation, because fewer Americans moved last year than at any time since 1962. What does this have to do with? Sam Roberts joins us, he's a Times reporter, he writes all about demographics. We are really seeing demographics fused with the economic downturn in this story, right Sam?
Sam Roberts: John, that's absolutely true. One of the things we're seeing now is that people are stuck in their homes, they're unable or unwilling to sell their houses at fire-sale prices, that ordinarily would have a much bigger impact on the economy, because one of the things that American mobility has been so good in providing is getting people to where the jobs are. That's a little mitigated this time because as John Fox points out, there are no jobs, so he doesn't have any place to move to, and he can't move.
John Hockenberry: So, the first time, I mean this is the lowest moving rate since 1962, I mean, Americans are always described as a very, very mobile culture. There's got to be more to this story, though, than just the economic downturn this year. This is a trend that's been going on for a while.
Sam Roberts: That's absolutely true. It's the lowest rate, actually, since back in the late 1940's, the lowest number since 1962, and the number and the rate have both been going down, particularly the rate, for a couple of decades. And there are reasons for that, a number of reasons. One, the aging of the population, typically people move when they're in their 20's and 30's. Two earner families have been increasing, which mean it's much tougher for both spouses to find jobs someplace else. Home ownership rate has been increasing, and one thing that's done is made people a little bit less mobile. So all of those things have sort of conspired to make a much less mobile society, sort of dampening the wanderlust that America has typically had.
John Hockenberry: And the fact that these homeowners can't sell their homes, even in the midst of a housing bubble burst like this, means they're trapped, so as home ownership rates come down, still people can't necessarily move. Talk about the moving industry itself, there are all kinds of industries and sectors of the economy that depend on moving. What's happening to them?
Sam Roberts: That's true, there's an economic impact on that, not just on movers, but on all the people they employ, on people who do renovations on houses, people who sell and manufacture durable goods like appliances in particular that people are more likely to buy for their new homes. So the decline in mobility itself has an economic impact, and movers all across the country are saying that decline is pronounced, it's something they've never seen to this extent before, particularly in inter-state moves, which are made primarily when people retire, even more so when people switch jobs they move between states.
John Hockenberry: I'm not a demography expert like you are, Sam, but I was looking at these numbers. In 2008, the Census Bureau says 35.2 million people changed residences? And the year before was 38.7? That's a huge number.
Sam Roberts: It is a huge number, it's about 11 or so percent of the population, and Americans still move at rates that are much higher than people in other developed countries. But that percent has been going down, and it goes down from a peak, a moderate peak of about 20%, twice the rate that we're moving now, as recently as the 1980's.
John Hockenberry: What we've seen in a lot of these economic downturn stories is how much elasticity exists in the U.S. economy. For instance, in the housing market, so much of demand was propped up by refinancing, people flipping homes, speculators buying multiple homes, and as that gets sort of skimmed off the top and you get down to the basic sort of people who want to buy homes. I mean, the demand is much less. There's a lot of elasticity in this moving number as well. If we're at 11% and we're at an historic low from 1962, there's a lot farther that we could actually go down, right?
Sam Roberts: There is indeed, and when you look at those interstate moves, which are a good barometer of people changing jobs. Numerically, there were fewer interstate movers last year than any year since 1950, when the nation's population was about half of what it is today. That's an enormous jump and it's half the rate reported as recently as the beginning of this decade.
John Hockenberry: Does this benefit the cities or benefit the suburbs? Or neither?
Sam Roberts: Well, you know you could make an argument that the cities are a little more stable, people are less likely to abandon neighborhoods, but it also creates a certain static condition. Home ownership is very good in terms of stability, but it's also, as we say in the story, strands people.
Katherine Lanpher, Takeaway Guest Host: I know you also took a look at immigration numbers and not just migration numbers domestically. What do you see there?
Sam Roberts: Look Katherine, that's true too. Immigration from overseas is the lowest in more than a decade, and it's still fairly high, it's still over a million, but it's been dropping and in part that's a factor of jobs. It often is a reflection of immigration laws and other global events, but in this case, people are not coming to some extent because the jobs aren't here.
John Hockenberry: Sam, before we go, we talk a lot about buy locally and energy efficiency and all of that. Would it just be better somehow if Americans stayed put? Would that produce, in the long haul, some benefits for the economy or no?
Sam Roberts: I don't think so. I mean, you could point to some benefits. If you talk to economists, Joe Tracy, the research director at the Federal Reserve bank, who I talked to yesterday, says that less mobility is a serious problem because it means people are not getting matched to their jobs. The labor market starts to improve, and it will, if mobility stays low you worry about the allocation of workers finding the jobs that best suit them. And that mobility has often been a very important factor in the vitality of the American economy.
John Hockenberry: Well, get a hold of the New York Times or get online and look at the numbers, our partners at the New York Times are reporting fewer Americans moved last year than at any time since 1962, directly related to the housing slump. Sam Roberts reported the story. Thanks so much, Sam.
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