There’s a suitcase in the middle of America.
Horace Greeley, a newspaper editor, reportedly said, “Go west, young man, and grow up with the land.” A proponent of Westward Expansion, Greeley correctly hit the heart of the peculiarly American brand of freedom: the liberty to leave town.
The Great Migration, when millions of African-Americans fled the South with Jim Crow as the wind at their backs, was perhaps the greatest significant migration in American history, even though it was not evenly dispersed.
“They have done what human beings longed for freedom, throughout history, and have often done,” Isabel Wilkerson, the historian, and author of The Warmth of Other Suns wrote. They made their way out of there.”
But what happens if you’re unable to leave? According to two psychologists writing in new research on the cultural implications of residential stagnation in the United States, “Americans, it appears, are finding themselves increasingly imprisoned in locations that they yearn to flee.”
A study by Nicholas Buttrick and Shigehiro Oishi cites studies demonstrating that today’s Americans are 45 percent less likely to migrate from an area than people were in the 1970s.
According to a new study, Americans’ levels of “happiness, justice, and trust” have decreased as their mobility decreases.
Could this be the result of decreased mobility? As Buttrick and Oishi point out, leaving one’s hometown and moving to an unfamiliar town can break social ties and force newcomers to define themselves by “context-free personality traits” (i.e., “I am hardworking” or “I am intelligent”) rather than by their ties to the community (i.e., “my sister owns the butcher shop downtown”).
Researchers have uncovered only associations thus far, and no one has shown that mobility decline is the cause of mental health issues.
As a final disclaimer, scholars only have reliable yearly rates of residential movement since 1948, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the cultural effects of residential mobility in the long term, despite the fact that some historical data exists.
In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that residential mobility isn’t completely independent of economic growth, settlement patterns, religious beliefs, and more. In other words, it’s possible that something else is at work here.
It’s a fact acknowledged by the authors, who point out that while unemployment and GDP growth are subject to cyclical patterns, mobility rates have been consistently dropping since 1948, despite both economic prosperity and hardship.
Economic and political science literature has been warning for decades about the decline in interstate mobility and its impact on financial and personal freedom.
For example, “individualism, optimism, and tolerance” are cultural indicators of a “mobile” and “stable” society, respectively, according to Buttrick and Oishi. In recent decades, the political system in the United States has seen a dramatic move toward the latter.
Buttrick and Oishi used the phrase “unfathomable” to characterize the speed with which Americans in the 1700s and 1800s switched towns: “What happens when people want to move but can’t?”
As many as 40% of Americans may have relocated every year in the 19th century. Fewer than 20% of households in one Illinois county remained in 1850; 7% of Ohio residents voted in both the 1850 and 1860 elections within the same district;
only 50% of Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston household heads enumerated in 1880 could be found in 1890; and “Moving Day,” the first of May, was an unofficial city holiday in New York City. Examples abound (Fischer, 2002).
That is no longer the case. According to Gallup survey data from 2016, 74% of Americans said they were pleased where they were, however this expanding bloc of “trapped” or “stuck” communities is having negative cultural repercussions on the country.
The conclusion from Buttrick and Oishi: Culture suffers when individuals stay in one place for long periods of time. More cynicism, sadness, and “those who feel less free to live their social lives as they see fit” are all symptoms of a stagnant society.
Researchers found that those who wanted to move but didn’t do so the following year were much more likely to disagree that “hard work may help a person get ahead,” even after controlling for things including socioeconomic position, health, race, and more.
Those who are unable to leave their current location wonder if their other achievements in life will be rewarded, according to the researchers.
Despite certain pessimistic tales, Americans are generally friendly to newcomers, and this is a trait that has defined our nation’s history.
Researchers Buttrick and Oishi quote say Americans are “unmatched by other nations” in their belief that technology can address huge issues because they are “very individualistic, extremely trusting of strangers, egalitarian, optimistic, and risk-taking.” It’s not just Americans who feel that everyone is basically the same.
Many of these changes have occurred in tandem with the decline in interstate mobility, according to scholars. There is a chance that we could end up with more stable communities that are less trusting of outsiders.
To be more specific, if you’re unable to pick your social networks because you’re in a place you don’t want to be, it affects your capacity to choose your social networks more broadly. You’re trapped with the people you’re closest to, whether they’re family or friends.
As a result, one develops a stronger sense of allegiance to one’s own in-group. Assuming it’s incredibly difficult to make new friends, it is extremely costly to lose or offend your current pals.
With this greater emphasis on group interactions, newcomers may become less open and more fearful since they lack the reputation that their predecessors have worked so hard to build up for decades.
Helping to kill the American ideal is what these policies do.
What’s the reason for this? What is preventing Americans from moving forward? Even in the face of localized recessions (which would have historically compelled individuals to flee for economic opportunity elsewhere), people remain in their homes.
Wages for college degrees and higher-paying employment are rising only in a few locations, while the wages of low-wage workers are stagnating throughout the country.
Neither the authors nor the reviewers have come up with any underlying causes.
According to many economists, this is due to the state-imposed walls of red tape. Zoning limits on how property can be utilized and occupational licensing requirements are the two types of laws that we’re talking about here.
A shortage of housing, especially in areas with a high demand for workers, is a direct result of the first. A new study has found that for many people, moving to some of the most economically thriving locations could cost them money, as the increased cost of housing dwarfs a significantly higher pay.
People may also be discouraged from relocating to states with strict restrictions, which makes it difficult for them to maintain their current employment.
At the Niskanen Center’s Captured Economy project, “approximately 25% of American workers need a state license to conduct their job—up from 10% in 1970,” according to the organization’s website.
For workers like cosmetologists and contractors, moving across state lines is difficult because of the high expenses and time required for obtaining an entirely new license. It is estimated that “on average these laws need over a year of education and experience, one exam and over $260 in fees,” according to the Institute for Justice (IJ).
The rules are passed in the name of protecting consumers, but as IJ points out, there are numerous absurd inconsistencies that expose this argument as a sham: [I]n most jurisdictions, it takes 12 times longer to become licensed as a cosmetologist than it does for an EMT (emergency medical technician).
Housing and occupational licensing aren’t the only factors limiting interstate movement. Different qualifying rules for public benefits, pensions for public employees and residential tax subsidies, state and municipal tax regulations, and even basic property law principles, according to Yale Law professor David Schleicher make it difficult to transfer from decreasing regions.
As regulations pile up and opportunity costs rise, interstate mobility may continue to shrink, and the United States may eventually reach a point where only the wealthy can afford to relocate.
The advantages of stability must be better balanced with the advantages of mobility in the United States.
If you prefer a more stable environment, that’s not a negative thing. Most people, including those who pride themselves on their individuality, eventually settle down. Having children and wanting to stay put so that they may send them to school, or growing older and experiencing changes that were previously exhilarating are two scenarios that can come to mind.
In addition, the stability of a home serves as a powerful bonding agent. When it comes to long-term community involvement and investment, Buttrick and Oishi believe that “those who have recently relocated may have a lower level of interest.”
Non-movers, on the other hand, may encourage the kind of social cohesion that makes it possible for movers to be hopeful, idealistic, and open to meeting new people.
Buttrick told me that areas with greater residential mobility have lower levels of social capital. “It’s very difficult to become a part of a community if you just show up.”
However, this isn’t necessary.
Some American institutions have a good track record of integrating newcomers into society, he said. Such “cultural reactions to residential mobility” include things like “megachurches,” which are “large, don’t take much time, and get you into a deep community quickly without having to incur any fees,” for example.
When it all comes down to it, it’s all about moderation. No one should be forced to move all the time, but they should always be able to do so.
Leaving small towns and rural areas could have a major impact on the country if psychologists are correct. Even more so, because it’s generally the wealthier mavericks who are able to leave the country, resulting in an imbalance in society. There are long-term effects for children who grow up in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
In principle, having a stable environment is a wonderful thing, but in actuality, its meaning can vary widely. “Stable” is a good word, but if it implies being stuck in an area with a high rate of poverty, that’s a policy failure. In contrast to white Americans, Black Americans are becoming increasingly unable to relocate when they expect to, according to new research.
Asymmetrically, while it’s very impossible to benefit from being forced to migrate, the opposite is true for those who are compelled to stay there.
Emi Nakamura and Jón Steinsson of UC Berkeley and Jósef Sigurdsson of the Norwegian School of Economics conducted research on households forced to relocate after their town was engulfed in lava.
An Icelandic village was evacuated in 1973 after a volcanic eruption, and while many individuals returned to their homes if they were still standing, it was much less likely for those who lost their homes.
“We estimate a causal effect of relocation of $27,000 per year, or nearly doubling the average earnings of individuals whose homes were not damaged,” the researchers write in their paper, which examines the impact of displaced families on long-term incomes and schooling.
It’s clear that the adults in this circumstance bear a heavy burden for the trauma and shock of having to leave their homes and the corresponding financial difficulties. Moving costs can be recovered even under stressful circumstances, as this natural experiment shows.
There are no plans to use strategic lava flows as a means of relocating American citizens. Steps to improve mobility have consequences, for example, easing zoning rules leads to higher building and neighborhood change in the places where people seek to relocate. These expenses are more than justified.
America’s political and cultural institutions are becoming more conservative as the population becomes older, creating an environment that discourages experimentation, embraces risk, and welcomes new individuals and ideas.
It could lead to a generation of Americans growing up in a country where freedom of movement is a privilege for the wealthy and a diminishment of social and economic mobility in the United States.