Downturn keeping Americans' wanderlust in check
Study: Fewer moving than at any time since World War II

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009

The wanderlust that helped define the American character has been reined in by the recession and the collapse in housing prices, according to a new study showing fewer Americans changing residences than at any time since World War II.

About 12 percent of Americans moved in each of the past two years, down from 13 to 14 percent a year during the first part of this decade. Historical trends show a more precipitous drop. In any given year throughout the 1990s, 16 to 17 percent of Americans changed homes. Throughout the 1950s and in the early 1960s, it was one in five.

William Frey, the Brookings Institution demographer who wrote the study, said the economic slowdown has accelerated a long-term trend of people growing more rooted as homeownership has increased and the average age of Americans has risen. Add the bursting of the housing bubble, the credit crisis and the resulting recession, and many people are cemented in place.

"This triple whammy of forces made it riskier for would-be homebuyers to find financing, would-be sellers to receive good value for their home and potential long-distance movers to find employment in areas where jobs were previously plentiful," said Frey, who analyzed statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and the IRS for the study released Wednesday.

The report paints a picture of an America slowing down. The numbers for metropolises such as New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, which had been losing tens of thousands of residents in search of more affordable housing, are stabilizing. The flow out also subsided in the Washington area, whose population growth has been fueled by the arrival of tens of thousands of immigrants.

The effect of foreclosures was suggested in the study. In the year beginning in March, the percentage of people who moved to another house in the same county inched up more than half a percentage point from 2007 to 2008. But the percentage of people who moved to another state -- a statistic more likely to reflect a new job -- stayed the same, a record low level of 1.6 percent.

The phenomenon affected people across every demographic except immigrants.

The young and the footloose in their 20s are usually responsible for an outsized share of those who move, and they showed the steepest decline as jobs grew scarce, prompting many to return to their parents' homes.

Even the unemployed are less mobile.

"Five years ago, they might have decided to go to Las Vegas or Orlando, whether they had a job or not, because they thought they could find something," Frey said. "Now they're stuck."

Although Americans are more mobile than almost any other society, the most recent downtick is not an unprecedented reaction to tough times. During the Great Depression, an era of hobos, Hoovervilles and Okies, individuals left home to look for work, but families with children stayed put, said Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University.

"The mythology is that Americans move when they're down on their luck and have no recourse," he said. "That happens. But more generally, people move because they hope and expect it's going to be better."

But in this recession, the economic hardship is so widespread that few horizons offer much hope.

"Though a few parts of the country are better than others, nobody has a clear sense of where we're going, so we just sit," said Peter Stearns, provost and history professor at George Mason University.

Because of influences as varied as technology and coffee chains, Americans were becoming a more settled people even before the recession.

Joel Kotkin, an urban historian whose book "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050" will be published in February, sees a rise in "localism." He said the Internet allows rootedness to take hold because people don't necessarily have to move for careers and culture.

"When I would drive cross-country in my youth and leave New York, you couldn't get a good cup of coffee and good bread until you got to San Francisco," said Kotkin, a baby boomer. "Today, you can stop in 100 towns along the way and get a bagel and a decent Mexican meal. You can live in Dallas and Houston and have access to much of the culture you have in New York and Los Angeles. The reasons to move are less compelling now. So people find their niche and stay in it."

The days when 20 percent or more of Americans moved in a given year, as was typical in the 1950s, might be gone forever. But historians and demographers expect Americans to return to their peripatetic ways once the economy improves. Frey, the study's author, expects it to be like it was in the 1990s, when the percentage of Americans who moved was in the mid-teens each year.

"We're a country of pioneers," he said. "The idea that we can improve our lot in life by migration, not by standing where we are and hoping it will get better, is in our genes."

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