American Advisors Group

A new analysis from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that nearly 10 percent of Americans want to move. But those of us who want to change locations and those of us who end up doing it are often not the same.

The Great Recession put a big crimp in the rate at which Americans move, which fell to record lows in its wake. Some economists suggest that declining moving rates are related to post-recession job markets, which are so similar across states that they act as a disincentive to move. Others contend that the housing crisis "locked in place" residents of especially hard hit Rustbelt and Sunbelt areas, who were suddenly unable to sell their homes even if they wanted to.

While we know a lot about who actually moves and where, a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau adds an intriguing new wrinkle, comparing Americans who “desire to move” with those who actually leave their homes.

The study is based on data from an ongoing panel survey—the Survey of Income and Program Participation—which follows roughly 50,000 U.S. households over time. The survey asks detailed questions about whether these households want to move, and if so, why. It asks specifically if their desire to move is due to “undesirable conditions” that stem from their home, their neighborhood, the threat of crime, or poor public services. Then it matches the responses to detailed data from the same survey on the socioeconomic characteristics of these households, the type of housing in which participants live (whether it's owned or rented), and the characteristics of their neighborhoods based on data from the Census's American Community Survey. The study examines how many Americans desired to move in 2010, and then compares those numbers to the actual mobility patterns between 2010 and 2011.

Which leads us to the eye-opening results: 11.2 million households, or nearly 10 percent of all U.S. households, desired to move in 2010. And yet fewer than 20 percent of those potential movers (2.2 million households) ended up doing so by 2011. The study also finds that there are disturbing socioeconomic and racial gaps between the people who want to move and do, and the people who want to move and don't.

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Why did so many people want to move? The largest share, 6.1 percent of U.S. households, said it was because of they were dissatisfied with their own housing. Nearly 5 percent of households said they wanted to move because they were dissatisfied with their neighborhood (4.7 percent), or because they were concerned about from crime and safety (4.1 percent). A smaller share said their desire to move came from their dissatisfaction with local public services (1.8 percent).

Young people are much more likely to move than older Americans, as I noted recently, so it’s no surprise that young people desired to move at higher rates than older Americans, as the chart below shows. The desire to move was highest for the 16-34 year-old age group and fell off as people aged.

Renters were much more likely to want to move than homeowners, as the chart below shows, with 16.5 percent of renting households saying that they wanted to leave. Compare that to just 6.1 percent of homeowners. Of course, renters trend younger, so this probably reflects the fact that younger people are more likely to want to move. Furthermore, homeowners are much more likely to be tied to place, as the very act of buying a home indicates that households are more committed to staying for the long-term.  

Families with children are also more likely to want to move. In fact, the desire to move went up considerably if one had a child in the past year (17.5 percent), even compared to if a household had a divorce (leading to 13.5 percent of households desiring to move) or a separation (11.2 percent). The way I see it, it is not the act of coupling or getting married that shapes the desire to relocate, but having children. I’ve called this the second of three big moves, the first coming after college and the third when the kids are gone.

The most troubling findings from the study have to do with race and poverty.   The desire to move is much greater among racial minorities. Roughly 17 percent of black households and 13 percent of Hispanic households said they wanted to move, compared to just 8 percent of whites.

Those at the bottom of the country’s socioeconomic order were also more likely to want to move. As the chart to the left shows, those who wanted to move were more likely to live in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, regardless of renter status. (Among high-poverty households, the desire to move was also higher for renters.)

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But how many of those who want to move actually go through with it? The study shows that low-income people who wanted to move were much less likely to actually do so than their higher-income peers. More than one in five (21.5 percent) households making $25,000 or less said they desired to move in 2010, but only 14.3 of these actually moved in 2011. Far fewer households making $100,000 or more wanted to move in 2010—just 5.6 percent—but 16 percent of these actually moved in the next year.

The study further finds that most of those who ended up moving were happy with their decisions. Just one in five households that said they wanted to move in 2010 and did so by 2011 reported dissatisfaction with their new home. Those who moved for housing reasons expressed an especially marked upswing, as the chart below shows.

Understanding why people desire to move is especially important at a time when the mobility of Americans is at or near record lows. The U.S. suffers not only from income inequality but from residential inequality, as well. As the study makes clear, it’s lower income and minority households who are the most stuck in place, wanting to move but unable to do so.

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