Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg on Immobility in America

Americans are moving less than they used to. This is preventing rural wages from recovering as more and more of the good jobs move to the cities. Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg wrote a great article about why. All of the quotations are from that article, "Struggling Americans Once Sought Greener Pastures—Now They're Stuck," which was published in the August 2, 2017 Wall Street Journal. 

First, they lay out the magnitude of the issues:

In rural America, which is coping with the onset of socioeconomic problems that were once reserved for inner cities, the rate of people who moved across a county line in 2015 was just 4.1%, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. That’s down from 7.7% in the late 1970s. 

Most of the rest of the article is about the reasons why. To preview, they are

  1. High Home Prices in the City Because of Restrictive Land-Use Regulations
  2. Occupational Licensing
  3. Aid for the Down-and-Out that Is Tied to a Locality
  4. Cultural Divides

1. High Home Prices in the City Because of Restrictive Land-Use Regulations

I have been struck more and more by the importance of land-use regulations in maintaining the class divide in America. I have written about that issue in these posts:

(Also see Emily Badger: There Is No Such Thing as a City that Has Run Out of Room.)

Here is what Janet and Paul have to report on this issue:

Economists say there are several practical reasons for the declining rural mobility—the first being the cost of housing. While small-town home prices have only modestly recovered from the housing market meltdown, years of restrictive land-use regulations have driven up prices in metropolitan areas to the point where it is difficult for all but the most highly educated professionals to move.

Even more pointedly, they quote Peter Ganong as follows: 

“We’re locking people out from the most productive cities. ... This is a force that widens the urban-rural divide.”

2. Occupational Licensing

I have repeatedly attacked occupational licensing as both an unwarranted infringement on liberty and as a way for the haves to keep down the have-nots. See for example:

In addition to those harms, occupational licensing requirements that differ by state can make it harder for people to move. Janet and Paul write:

Another obstacle to mobility is the growth of state-level job-licensing requirements, which now cover a range of professions from bartenders and florists to turtle farmers and scrap-metal recyclers. A 2015 White House report found that more than one-quarter of U.S. workers now require a license to do their jobs, with the share licensed at the state level rising fivefold since the 1950s.

Janna E. Johnson and Morris M. Kleiner of the University of Minnesota found in a nationwide study that barbers and cosmetologists—occupations that tend to require people to obtain new state licenses when they relocate—are 22% less likely to move between states than workers whose blue-collar occupations don’t require them.

3. Aid for the Down-and-Out that Is Tied to a Locality

In general, it is probably a good thing that America has a wealth of non-governmental forms of aid for people (see "How and Why to Expand the Nonprofit Sector as a Partial Alternative to Government: A Reader’s Guide"). But when the non-governmental aid is tied to a locality, it can inhibit mobility. Governmental aid tied to a locality can do the same thing. Janet and Paul write:

For many rural residents across the country with low incomes, government aid programs such as Medicaid, which has benefits that vary by state, can provide a disincentive to leave. ... Civic leaders here say extended networks of friends and family and a tradition of church groups that will cover heating bills, car repairs and septic services—often with no questions asked—also dissuade the jobless and underemployed from leaving. ...

Cody Zimmer, 29, of Ogemaw County toyed with moving to work for an uncle in New Jersey or closer to Detroit after a decadelong career in skilled manufacturing periodically left him unemployed. But student debt and a divorce damaged his finances, and he says his best option ended up being renting his mom’s house outside West Branch. “If anything happened there, I’d be right back out on my own,” Mr. Zimmer says of these other places. ...

Many West Branch residents say that the town’s economic woes aren’t enough to make them leave. They point to the safety net the community provides—a helping hand to pay bills, or the way people come together when a neighbor is diagnosed with cancer.

It is not impossible to have non-governmental aid that is not tied to a locality. Mormons can move anywhere and immediately have the kind of social support and practical aid from their new congregation that others feel they can only get in their hometown. Every Mormon is effectively assigned several social workers from the congregation, called "home teachers" and "visiting teachers," who come into the home and try to identify if they need help as well as giving a religious lesson. You can read about this system and other aspects of Mormon social support in Megan McArdle's Bloomberg essay "How Utah Keeps the American Dream Alive" (discussed in the storify "Taking Care of the Poor and Troubled Without Getting Tied Up in Knots About Race") and these posts:


Besides practical aid, Mormon congregations buffer culture shock when people move from one place to another. More than one observer has described a Mormon congregation as an ersatz small town. Mormons themselves are not ashamed to glory in the relatively high degree of standardization of Mormonism from place to place, even sometimes comparing it to McDonald's in that regard. 

4. Cultural Divides

For those who do not belong to a religion that provides an ersatz small-town and a degree of cultural homogeneity wherever they go, awareness of the cultural differences between rural areas and the big city can be a powerful force reducing the willingness to move. Janet and Paul write:

Beyond the practical difficulties, rural residents and experts say there is another impediment to mobility that is often more difficult to overcome—the growing cultural divide.

Tom W. Smith, who runs the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, says that cities’ welcoming attitudes toward immigrants from abroad, same-sex marriage and secularism heighten distrust among small-town residents with different values. ...

“One of the big cultural divides when people move from small towns to cities is this feeling that you can’t be involved in your community,” says David J. Peters, associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University. “You feel powerless to change large cities.”

Europe has understandably low mobility between different countries that have different languages and cultures. America is becoming more like Europe in that regard. 

Politics itself has become a bigger and bigger cultural divide. I was surprised and disheartened by the pushback I got online when I decried political prejudice. Here is my opening salvo criticizing "politicism" and then the tweeted defenses of political prejudice that I received:

I wish people would make a bigger effort to understand the political views of their fellow Americans instead of demonizing those who think differently. Even views that deserve to be fought vigorously need to be understood first in order to fight them effectively. My single most popular post, "John Stuart Mill's Brief for Freedom of Speech," has a useful set of resources for thinking about that. 


Each of these four factors that reduces mobility is a problem in its own right. Trying to remove these obstacles to mobility would also reduce obstacles to opportunity and comity more generally. If you want to see me wrestling with these kinds of issues, try "Restoring American Growth: The Video."