It's one of the most durable perceptions about America: The United States is a nation on the move. From the days of "manifest destiny," when pioneers forged their way westward, to today, as technology loosens the geographic tether, the American people appear congenitally restless. Unlike other stodgy countries, we're a young nation, modern cowboys and cowgirls, lonely but rugged, isolated and independent, charting our own course. We're entrepreneurial, pursuing opportunities wherever they take us. What could be more quintessentially American?
An article in the July 14, 2005, Economist describes "restlessness in the midst of plenty" as one of our nation's "most remarkable features." Since people often relocate to find better jobs, the story suggests, geographic mobility fosters economic mobility. Except when it has the opposite effect: "The wider worry is that America's great sorting-out could damage the country by producing a stratified land of haves and have-nots, and creating more class divisions."
The ills allegedly caused by rising mobility don't stop there. In his 2000 book Restless Nation, the independent scholar James Jasper blames increased mobility for everything from environmental degradation to lack of respect for the government to high divorce rates. He suggests broad changes in federal housing policy, among other measures, to encourage people to stay put. The Rutgers sociologist David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project, blames mobility for the unraveling of the American family, the decline of urban neighborhoods, and the destructive influence of the mass media. Without strong social ties, he writes in his 2001 book Private Pleasure, Public Plight, "the dominant force...becomes the mass media, especially television, and whatever meanings and values these media impart. Far from maximizing human choice, this situation [of mobility] represents an apogee of cultural coercion in which [a] citizen is every bit as much a puppet as under a doctrinaire political totalitarianism."
All this might be very troubling, if not for the fact that increasing geographic mobility is a myth. If anything, Americans are more likely than ever to stay put. You might think that basic fact would give the social critics and policy makers pause. But it hasn't stopped them from asserting that rampant mobility is destroying the environment, undermining the family, and increasing anomie. More important, it hasn't stopped them from proposing intrusive, coercive, and expensive measures to curb a problem that doesn't exist.
In 2004 less than 14 percent of U.S. residents moved--the lowest figure since the Census Bureau began collecting the data in 1948, when the moving rate was 20 percent. What's more, the movers aren't going very far: Fifty-eight percent of people who moved in 2004 moved within the same county, while 20 percent moved to a different county within the same state. Nineteen percent of movers (less than 3 percent of U.S. residents) set off for different states, a bit lower than the interstate moving rate during the late 1940s. And those who move usually aren't in hot pursuit of economic opportunity: Just 16 percent of all moves are work-related. (Most people move for reasons related to housing: to shift from renting to homeownership, to find a cheaper or more spacious place, and so on.)
"The idea of an increasingly mobile society is a widely held, but untrue, fact," says Douglas A. Wolf, a professor at Syracuse University's Center for Policy Research, who published a paper on the subject in the February 2005 issue of The Gerontologist. Indeed, according to the historian Stephanie Coontz, whose books include 1992's The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and last year's Marriage, a History, a person born today is more likely to remain near his birthplace than a person born in the 19th century.
The Mobility Myth's Mischief
You'd never know that from today's policy debates. The idea that the United States is "an increasingly mobile society" is an indestructible intellectual weed. It pops up everywhere.
It worries managers seeking to hire skilled workers. It has become a part of college curricula across the country. It crops up in academic studies, sometimes in the most arcane contexts: In 2004 Robert Owen Gardner, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, cited increasing geographic mobility to explain why people like to attend bluegrass festivals. More seriously, a September 1997 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology cited rising mobility as an explanation for changing rates in malignant melanoma. Also in 1997, the Office of AIDS Surveillance in New York offered the same explanation for rising AIDS transmission rates in rural areas. The mobility myth gets around.
There are legal repercussions as well. Judges cite increasing geographic mobility in awarding child custody. In a 2002 case involving a custodial parent who wished to relocate with her children, the Texas Supreme Court, citing precedent from California, New Jersey, New York, and Minnesota, explained that "historically, courts have disfavored removing a child from the jurisdiction issuing the original custody decree. Recently, however, courts have reassessed the standards for relocation....Increasing geographic mobility [has] in part accounted for this shift in perspective."
On the legislative front, "increasing geographic mobility" is widely cited to justify increased tax funding for family support services. The advocacy group Massachusetts Citizens for Children makes the typical case on its Web site: "Not so long ago, families could count on nearby relatives, neighbors, and friends to share in child care, give advice and encouragement, and serve as role models. But high rates of divorce and single-parenthood, soaring numbers of women in the workforce, and increasing geographic mobility have left many families isolated from these traditional informal support networks."
The mobility myth also plays a role in the debate over publicly funded elder care programs, particularly in arguments for expanding expensive long-term care programs and services for the frail or disabled elderly, which could become a major component of Medicare expenses and are already a major component of Medicaid expenses. Wolf cites a 1999 paper by Sharon Tennstedt, vice president for studies on aging at the New England Research Institutes, in which she predicts that changing social trends, including "increased geographic mobility," will "decrease the availability or willingness of family members to provide care to a disabled elder." Should such calls result in an increase in public coverage for long-term care, either through Medicare, Medicaid, or a new entity, the costs would be staggering. During the next 50 years, spending on long-term care is expected to skyrocket: from $137 billion in 2000 to $379 billion by 2050. As of now, the public foots 62 percent of the tab, so federal and state budgets will certainly feel the strain if everything stays as it is today--to say nothing of what would happen if public financing of long-term care is expanded.
The U.S. Administration on Aging's National Family Care Giver Support Program, which was created by Congress in 2000 and has an annual budget of $155 million, provides support to Americans who care for elderly relatives, at least in part because of the belief that such caregivers are hampered by geographic mobility. The administration's fact sheet on the subject marvels that "the degree of caregiver involvement has remained fairly constant for more than a decade, bearing witness to the remarkable resilience of the American family in taking care of its older persons. This is despite increased geographic separation." The resilience is a bit less remarkable when you consider that geographic separation has not in fact increased.
There's no doubt that our rapidly aging population poses a significant challenge, especially as the baby boomers hurtle toward their retirement years. But focusing on geographic proximity distracts us from other factors that can create problems for people taking care of aged relatives, such as indifferently drafted family leave policies or Medicare rules.