Census finds Americans moving, but not far

By Hope Yen
Associated Press / May 11, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Americans are on the move again, after years of staying put. But they’re not going very far, taking few chances because of weak markets for housing and jobs.

Roughly 12.5 percent of the US population, or 37.1 million people, moved to a new home, up from a low of 11.9 percent, or 35.2 million, in 2008, according to census figures released yesterday.

While it was the first percentage gain in US mobility since the height of the housing bubble in 2005, the levels remain at historic lows. The vast majority of the new moves in 2009 also occurred within a county, indicating that most were renters and lower-income people going locally from job to job.

The share of longer-distance moves across counties and states was basically unchanged. That is evidence that college graduates and younger professionals were temporarily staying put during the housing crunch, rather than seeking out careers in other regions of the country.

Analysts said the nation’s low mobility could have social benefits if people feel they can rely more on longtime neighbors and family to get through hard times. But they cautioned that it could also stunt a fledgling economic recovery if talented new workers feel trapped.

“Communities with lower levels of mobility do have higher levels of trust and well-being, but they also have much less higher rates of productivity and innovation,’’ said Richard Florida, a professor of US urban theory at the University of Toronto. “I would err in a downturn on making sure people have economic opportunities.’’

The levels of people moving have been gradually declining for decades, more recently due to an aging baby boomer population that is less mobile, since hitting a peak of 21.2 percent in 1951. But the rate had generally leveled off around 14 percent before dropping sharply in 2008 due to the recession. Most demographic groups saw a slowdown in US migration, with the young and old taking the biggest hits.

About 1 in 4 adults ages 25 to 34 last year changed residences. That’s up slightly from 2008 but down from 32 percent in 2000 as many held off on a job search, delayed marriage, or opted to pursue an advanced degree in the recession. Older Americans also stayed put. Their overall mobility in 2009 was largely flat, registering at 3.4 percent for seniors 65 and older and 4.9 percent for people ages 60 to 64. Long-distance migration for both groups fell to below 2 percent, the lowest in at least two decades, after most older people delayed retirement and kept working due to shriveled stock and home values.

Katherine Newman, a sociology professor at Princeton University, said she was worried that mobility may have decreased too sharply in recent years, noting that many young adults were being forced to “boomerang’’ back home to live with parents because of limited jobs.

“In many households where that move is not voluntary and is merely a reflection of financial distress, there can be a great deal of tension,’’ she said.