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What our reasons for moving say about the state of the economy

(By Wikimedia Commons User:Seqqis)

The decision to move is an intensely personal and revealing one. We move homes because we lost a job or found a new one, because a new child was born or an older one finally left for college. We move because we have to, following a foreclosure, or because we can afford to, in search of a nicer place.

So many of life's milestones -- good or bad, qualifying for a first mortgage, surviving a hurricane -- are accompanied by a moving van. In the aggregate, this means that we can add up all of the reasons why Americans move in a given year and glean something about what's going on in their lives, and even, by extension, the economy.

Take the the 35.9 million people who moved between 2012 and 2013, according to the Census Bureau -- either just down the block, into a new county or much farther away. Data from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the Current Population Survey reveals that, among their householders, 8.4 percent moved last year in search of cheaper housing. According to the data, 1.8 percent moved because of a foreclosure or eviction. Asked to pick the one reason that most contributed to their decision to move, 1.6 percent said they moved to look for work or because they lost a job.

These individual motivations all hint at larger forces in the economy. This chart, from a new Census report by David Ihrke, gives a snapshot of all these reasons for moving over the past year:

Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Society and Economic Supplement

Because similar questions have been asked of Americans over time, we can compare many of these responses to prior years. Earlier versions of this question did not include among potential answers foreclosures or natural disasters (which became particularly relevant to moving data after Hurricane Katrina). Those reasons are collapsed in previous years into the "other housing" and "other" categories.

We can see, though, that Americans were more likely to move last year than in 1999 -- the earliest year for which comparable data was collected -- because they wanted cheaper housing, or because they lost a job:

Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Society and Economic Supplement
Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Society and Economic Supplement

The share who moved because they wanted to own a home noticeably dropped, while the share moving to create their own households increased. That second trend is consistent with millennials who've been living at home during the recession finally starting to move out.

In a stronger economy, we'd expect to see more people moving because they found a job and fewer moving because they lost one. We'd expect to see more people able to follow through on their desires for a new or better home. We'd expect more people moving as a part of the transition from renter to homeowner.

One other notable trend last year relative to 1999 is that more people moved to be closer to work or to have a better commute. In a rough economy, this may be a reflection of households hoping to save money on transportation costs. But it's also possible in the last 15 years that Americans have grown slightly wearier of their long commutes or more attuned to the role of transportation in their housing decisions.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.



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