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The Makeup of Stuck America

Why people from some states move more than others


In recent posts I've taken note of Americans’ declining mobility and looked at the states where people are more and less likely to move. Today, I look at the factors that are associated with states with low levels of mobility.    

With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, we correlated the key social, economic and other factors that are associated with low mobility or what we're calling “stuck states”—those with higher percentages of people who were born in their current state of residence. Having a higher percentage of residents born in a state suggests a low rate of mobility in that state.

Our analysis looked at the role of income and other economic factors; human capital, the nature of the labor force, and high-tech industry; openness and cultural diversity; and personality types which psychologists have identified as factors in people’s willingness to move. In addition, we examined the relationships between low mobility states and indicators of health like the rates of smoking and obesity, as well as measures of well-being and happiness. As always, it’s important to point out that our analysis is provisional and that correlation does not equal causation; other factors that we haven’t considered are likely to come into play. But our findings are intriguing nonetheless and suggest that the divergence between “stuck” and “mobile” states is a factor, and perhaps a key one, in America's economic and cultural divide.

So what features seem to best distinguish states with low levels of mobility? Religion is one. The correlation between the percentage of people who say religion plays an important role in their lives and the percentage of residents born in that state is substantial (at .46, it is one of the highest in our analysis). Stuck states have higher levels of poverty (with a correlation of .33). The economies and job markets of low mobility states are also more blue-collar, with higher shares of working class jobs (a correlation of .4).

Low mobility states have lower levels of income and human capital, measured as the percentage of adults that are college grads. The correlations between the percentage of residents born in a state are negative for income (-.37) and human capital (-.3). These findings suggest that limited mobility does have an effect on state, as well as individual, economic success. 

Low mobility states are also less diverse. There is a strong negative correlation between the percent of residents born in a state and both the percent of population that is gay (-.51) and foreign-born (-.47). Diversity, it appears, is an important factor in mobility and the ability of states to attract new people from elsewhere.

Interestingly, states with low rates of mobility have a particular personality profile. Research by Cambridge University social psychologist Jason Rentfrow charts the geography of what psychologists dub Big Five personality types – agreeable, conscientious, extrovert, neurotic and open-to-experience. States with higher levels of agreeable, extroverted and neurotic personality types are much more likely to have a higher percentage of residents born in that state (with correlations of .46, .49 and .4 respectively).   Conversely, the percentage of residents born in a state is negatively associated with openness-to-experience personality types (-.32). “These findings,” Rentfrow notes, “are consistent with recent research on personality and migration, which indicates that people who are agreeable are more likely to settle near family, and hence stay in the same state, and extroverts are more likely to move within their home state than to another state. The fact that mobility is higher in open states likely a result of creative, curious, and entrepreneurial types migrating to diverse places where their psychological needs can be easily met.”

The ability to move to find new work has long been a cornerstone of the American Dream. There is growing concern that being stuck in place contributes to higher levels of unemployment. Our analysis, however, finds no correlation whatsoever between the percentage of residents who were born in a state and either the overall rate of unemployment or its change over the past year. There is also no correlation between it and the level of income inequality. States with higher percentages of home grown residents do however have higher poverty rates (with a correlation of .33). State mobility appears to be related to residents’ perceptions of their future economic conditions. The percentage of residents born in a state is closely associated with the percentage of people in the state who see the economy as getting worse (.34) and negatively associated with the percentage who perceive the economy to be getting better (-.29). This likely reflects a difference in the levels of income and skills that underlie these divergent perceptions about the economy.

State-level mobility is also associated with key dimensions of health and well-being, according to our analysis. Low mobility states have higher levels of obesity and smoking and lower levels of happiness and well-being. The percentage of residents born in a state is positively correlated with smoking (.34) and obesity (.41), as well as with deaths from cardiovascular disease (.33), heart disease (.38), and cancer (.45). Conversely, the level of happiness or subjective well-being is negatively associated with the percentage of residents born in a state (with a correlation of -.28). While many have focused on the economic effects of mobility, our analysis suggests it plays an important role in health and happiness as well.

If mobility was once considered to be a quintessentially American attribute, it is now one that only an elite sliver of the population can lay claim to. It is both a significant shift and a sobering one.

Photo credit: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi

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