The Mobility Myth

Pundits love to fret about our "increasingly mobile society," but Americans are actually more likely than ever to stay put.


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.

Portrait of a Settling Nation

So where did the mobility myth come from, and why do we cling to it with such tenacity?

While historical statistics are difficult to come by, it seems likely that Americans used to be much more mobile than they are today. Alexis de Tocqueville described the United States as a place where "a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on; he plants a garden and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing." Although comprehensive demographic surveys were not possible in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, town census rolls show a great deal of turnover. In Boston's Jamaica Plain district, for example, only half of the household heads listed in the 1880 census were still there in 1890, according to a 2002 study by the Berkeley sociologist Claude S. Fischer published in the journal City & Community. This restlessness resulted from a series of "shocks," Fischer says, including economic depressions, farm failures, natural disasters, and wars. Migration to the frontier, driven by the search for fortune and a better life, also contributed to mobility.

Historians generally agree that throughout U.S. history Americans have been more mobile than people in other countries, particularly Europeans. The evidence for this is mostly anecdotal, since comparable statistics are hard to find. But even today, Americans are at least slightly more mobile than people in other countries. For example, 11 percent of U.K. residents moved house in 2001, compared to 14.2 percent of U.S. residents.

It's hard to pinpoint the moment Americans began to settle down, since the Census Bureau did not start collecting comparable yearly data on mobility until 1948. But since then, mobility has declined steadily. Local moves (within the same county or within the same state) have declined the most. In 1948, 17 percent of the population made a local move. By 2004 that figure had fallen to 11 percent. Interstate moves were already rare in the 1940s and have remained essentially flat since then: In 2004 just 2.7 percent of the population moved across state lines, compared to 3.4 percent in 1948.

The profile of the typical mover hasn't changed much either. "Migrants have always been younger," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. Movers today, as in the late 1940s, are disproportionately in their 20s and early 30s, although today's young aren't quite as restless. In 1948, 37 percent of 20-to-29-year-olds moved, compared to 28 percent in 2004.

Frey believes increased homeownership has played an important role in declining mobility. Sixty-eight percent of Americans owned homes in 2003, compared to 55 percent in 1950 and 47 percent in 1900. The increase is due partly to tax policies that subsidize home ownership and partly to looser mortgage application standards. A homeowning America is a more rooted America because homeowners are less likely to move. In 2004, for example, 6 percent of homeowners moved, compared with 28 percent of renters.

Inside those homes are people who are probably less inclined to move than they once were. Two careers are less portable than one, Wolf notes, and the number of dual-income, dual-career households is on the rise. In 1951, Census Bureau statistics show, 77 percent of women in married-couple households were not in the paid labor force. By 1997 that share had dropped to 38 percent.

And then there's a technology that is usually blamed for increasing mobility, not decreasing it: the automobile. Americans today are more likely to sit in traffic for longer periods of time each day rather than move house to get closer to a job. Between 1990 and 2000, according to Census Bureau data, the share of one-way commutes that were more than 90 minutes long nearly doubled, from 1.6% to 2.8%.

Finally, Frey notes, there's the general aging of our society. Since 1940 the percentage of people 65 and older has more than doubled, thanks to increases in longevity. The average baby born today can expect to live 10 more years than a baby born in 1950. Younger people move more frequently than older people, so as society grays the share of people who move each year naturally declines.

Why We Believe the Mobility Myth

Why does the mobility myth have so much staying power? "Maybe there's a button on people's keyboard that says 'increasingly mobile society,'" jokes Fischer, who has published papers debunking the mobility myth since the late 1970s. In his recent City & Community article, Fischer cites several academics who made this gaffe in their scholarly work, along with prominent newspapers that help perpetuate the myth. (In 2001, to give just one example, The New York Times attributed shifts in family patterns to "ever growing mobility among Americans.")

One reason the mobility myth persists, Fischer argues, is that it jibes with the widely held idea that we're in the midst of "a fall from grace." (You'd think we'd have landed by now–we've been falling for centuries.) If we're increasingly mobile, we're a less stable society than we once were, which fits nicely with the fall-from-grace theme. This sort of anxiety is epitomized by Vance Packard's oft-cited 1972 book A Nation of Strangers, which describes "a society coming apart at the seams" thanks to mobility. Packard connects increasing mobility with the disruption of male-female relationships, the unraveling of traditional religious beliefs, and the crushing speed of technological change. Mobility is an easy scapegoat for complex changes in the American social fabric.

Related to this habit is the common tendency to pine for the good old days. "When people think back," says Fischer, "they often interpret the past in terms of their own personal biographies, so the past was innocent and fun and stable, like childhood. They remember the past through rose-colored glasses, and an image of stability is part of it."

Historian Stephanie Coontz cites another factor that helps sustain the mobility myth: The people purveying it –academics, journalists, pundits–are a college-educated crowd, and highly educated people are more likely to move longer distances than less-educated people (although they are not more likely to do so than they were in the past). In 2004 only 25 percent of American adults had a bachelor's degree. "It is very common to believe that your particular, narrow slice of the socioeconomic strata is totally representative of the population as a whole," Coontz observes. She adds that Americans are especially likely to make this mistake because we tend to deny that there's such a thing as class in the United States. In societies where class differences are more commonly acknowledged–the United Kingdom, for example–such generalizations are less common. In those societies, Coontz says, the privileged few "are not only aware but proudly aware of the fact that they're a small sliver of the population."

Some social critics seem to be relying on a gut-level sense that we are moving around more than we once did, statistics to the contrary be damned. In Restless Nation, James Jasper writes: "Statistical averages are of little help in understanding dreams and identities….Perhaps only one man in ten abandons his job and his family to start life anew out West. But what do the other nine think about?"

This intuition is reinforced by the ways in which we have become more mobile. Domestic travel is increasing, for instance. The number of "person-trips"–defined as one person traveling either overnight or 50 miles or more away from home–increased 9.8 percent from 1994 to 2003, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, which surveys 25,000 households a month on their travel habits. In fast-growing cities, particularly in the Southwest and West, the sense of mobility could be enhanced by rapid population growth, demographer Frey suggests. In Las Vegas, for example, the population is 13 times what it was in the 1960s. In such cities, Frey says, the population is "mostly made up of people born somewhere else."

Above all, the mobility myth is politically expedient. Conservatives can use the notion that our society is becoming less stable because of increasing mobility to advocate programs that encourage traditional families and to push for taxpayer funding of faith-based social service organizations. Liberals can cite increasing mobility to justify funding for various social programs, including elder care and family care initiatives. Neither the right nor the left has an interest in debunking it, and so the myth endures.