One traditional stereotype of the US economy is that it includes a high degree of physical mobility of workers and families: between states, between rural to urban areas, between suburbs and inner cities, and so on. In theory, this mobility offers possibilities for adjusting to economic shocks and for seeking out opportunities, which in turn part of what makes a fluid and flexible market economy work. But in fact, Americans are moving less. David Schleicher discusses the issue in "Stuck! The Law and Economics of Residential Stagnation," appearing in the Yale Law Journal (October 2017, 127:1, pp. 78-154). He writes (footnotes omitted):
"Leaving one’s home in search of a better life is, perhaps, the most classic of all American stories. ... But today, the number of Americans who leave home for new opportunities is in decline. A series of studies shows that the interstate migration rate has fallen substantially since the 1980s. Americans now move less often than Canadians, and no more than Finns or Danes. ... [M]obility rates are lower among disadvantaged groups and that mobility has not increased despite becoming “more important” to individual economic advancement.
"More troubling still, Americans are no longer moving from poor regions to rich ones. This observation captures two trends in declining mobility. First, fewer Americans are moving away from geographic areas of low economic opportunity. David Autor, David Dorn, and their colleagues have studied declining regions that lost manufacturing jobs due to shocks created by Chinese import competition. Traditionally, such shocks would be expected to generate temporary spikes in unemployment rates, which would then subside as unemployed people left the area to find new jobs. But these studies found that unemployment rates and average wage reductions persisted over time. Americans, especially those who are non-college educated, are choosing to stay in areas hit by negative economic shocks. There is a long history of localized shocks generating interstate mobility in the United States; today, however, economists at the International Monetary Fund note that “following the same negative shock to labor demand, affected workers have more and more tended to either drop out of the labor force or remain unemployed instead of relocating.”
"Second, lower-skilled workers are not moving to high-wage cities and regions. Bankers and technologists continue to move from Mississippi or Arkansas to New York or Silicon Valley, but few janitors make similar moves, despite the higher nominal wages on offer in rich regions for all types of jobs. As a result, local economic booms no longer create boomtowns. Economically successful regions like Silicon Valley, San Francisco, New York, and Boston have seen only slow population growth over the last twenty-five years. Inequality between states has become entrenched. Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag have shown that a hundred-year trend of “convergence” between the richest and poorest states in per-capita state Gross Domestic Product (GDP) slowed in the 1980s and now has effectively come to a halt."
Schleicher makes the argument that state and local economic policies (and a few federal ones) are major contributors to this lack of mobility. More broadly, he argues that state and local policy is often much more strongly affected by those voters already in place who prefer stability, rather than by those who have not yet moved to the area and might prefer evolution and growth.
"[S]tate and local (and a few federal) laws and policies have created substantial barriers to interstate mobility, particularly for lower-income Americans. Land-use laws and occupational licensing regimes limit entry into local and state labor markets. Differing eligibility standards for public benefits, public employee pensions, homeownership tax subsidies, state and local tax laws, and even basic property law doctrines inhibit exit from low-opportunity states and cities. Building codes, mobile home bans, location-based subsidies, legal constraints on knocking down houses, and the problematic structure of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy all limit the capacity of failing cities to shrink gracefully, directly reducing exit among some populations and increasing the economic and social costs of entry limits elsewhere. ....
"A number of these policies changed substantially in ways that made populations stickier during the period when mobility fell. It is not clear whether these legal changes caused declines in mobility, or simply failed to push back against “natural” changes that reduced mobility—such as an aging population, declining churn in employment, and decreasing diversity of employers by region due to the increasing economic dominance of the service sector. But state and local policies in part dictate where people move, particularly by keeping people out of the richest metropolitan areas and best job markets. Whether as a direct cause or as mere bystanders, state, local, and federal laws therefore bear some responsibility for declining interstate mobility.... In aggregate, these local and state policies play a substantial role in creating or failing to combat the central macroeconomic problems of our time: slow growth rates, increasing inequality of wealth and income, and the difficulties of balancing inflation and unemployment. ...
However, state and local policies must answer to state and local needs, which are often in tension with broader national interests. ... [T]he structure and process of state and local government decisionmaking often overrepresents the voices of those local residents who care the most about stability and the least about growth. State and local governments have few incentives to consider broader national economic implications when writing zoning codes or establishing public pension rules. ... Where local or state governments have the power to limit entry or reduce exit, the harm to agglomerative efficiency, and thus national economic output, is substantially increased.
Mobility has traditionally been a way of smoothing the transitions that are a part of any dynamic and growing economy. Of course, lack of mobility isn't all that's ailing US labor markets. But I think it's a meaningful contributor.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
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