Mike Blake/Reuters

Americans are moving less than ever, but that fact masks a deep divide between the affluent and the disadvantaged.

Fewer Americans are moving than ever before. The share of Americans who moved fell 11 percent last year, the lowest level since the Census started collecting such data back in 1948. Then, more than a fifth of Americans (20.2 percent) moved.

But this much-publicized record low obscures a deep, and deeply disturbing, split. Just as Americans are divided between rich and poor, red and blue, and skilled and unskilled, so too are we divided between the mobile and the stuck.

Take a look at the chart below from Lyman Stone, who consistently offers among the most interesting, data-driven takes on migration and urban economics around. The charts break out migration rates for five broad classes of Americans by their highest level of educational attainment, a very good predictor of income and economic status: those with graduate and professional degrees; those with bachelor’s degrees; those with an associate’s degree or some college; those with a high school diploma; and those who did not complete high school.

The chart looks at relatively long-distance moves (between states), breaking out the mobility rate for each of the five groups. The mobility of the two most educated groups—those with a bachelor’s degree or an advanced or professional degree—is considerably higher than for the least educated groups, those with a high-school diploma or who failed to complete high school.

Migration continued to rise for the very most educated, while it fell for the very least educated,” Stone explains. “The highly educated are finding ways to keep moving to opportunity, while the less educated are more stuck in place.”

A much larger share of movers makes local moves. Although we tend to think of people relocating for a new job, the reality is that most people tend to move relatively short distances in order to get a new house or apartment, or for family reasons. And local moves—that is, moves within the same county—are down across the board, declining from nearly 14 percent in 1948 to less than 7 percent today.

Over the past decade, the highly educated have become more mobile over long distances, while the less educated have remained stuck with no appreciable gains in their mobility. The mobility divide is no short-term thing: It is persistent over time and increasingly baked into our economic geography.

But some metro areas attract more highly educated people than others. The next chart, put together by my colleague at the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI), Karen King, shows the 10 metros with largest share of highly educated migrants (those with a bachelor’s degree or above). This list is mainly fast-growing Sunbelt metros, and includes skilled metros and knowledge hubs on the one hand, resource boomtowns and tourism centers on the other. All in all, 40 percent of all highly educated domestic migrants went to these 10 metros.

Share of Highly Educated Migrants for the 10 Metros With the Largest Migration of Highly Educated People

Metro Total Net Domestic Migration Net Migration of Highly Educated People Highly Educated Share of Net Domestic Migration
Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO 21,886 16,164 73.9%
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 17,133 13,494 78.8%
San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 7,659 13,357 174.4%
Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ 20,336 11,019 54.2%
Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX 19,753 9,006 45.6%
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 4,441 8,645 194.7%
Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, NC-SC 15,274 8,474 55.5%
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach 4,147 7,759 187.1%
Raleigh-Cary, NC 4,851 6,182 127.4%
Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 19,178 6,011 31.3%

For these top 10 metros, the net number of highly educated migrants makes up anywhere from roughly 30 percent to almost 200 percent of net domestic migration. That means that in these places, there are more highly educated people moving in and/or fewer moving out. As a result, they have a greater net number of highly educated people than those with lower education levels. For example, highly educated people equate to more than 100 percent of all domestic migrants in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Raleigh-Cary, and perhaps surprisingly, Miami. These are places that are, for one reason or another, attracting highly educated people. In Denver, Seattle, Charlotte, Phoenix, and Austin, high-skilled people account for roughly half to more than three-quarters of domestic migrants, and in Houston, they are a bit more than 30 percent.  

Young, highly educated Americans are the most mobile. In fact, a person in their mid-twenties is roughly three times more likely to move than someone in their mid-fifties. Data developed by Jonathan Rothwell of the Gallup Organization (which I wrote about here) shows the extreme mobility of graduates from elite colleges and universities. Not surprisingly, the graduates of elite universities in college towns are most likely to move. Nearly 85 percent of Duke students leave the Durham-Chapel Hill metro after they graduate.

But grads of elite universities in large, dynamic regions are very likely to move as well. More than three-quarters of Harvard graduates and more than 70 percent of MIT grads leave the Boston metro. And nearly 60 percent of Stanford grads leave Silicon Valley. Even though New York has the highest rate of graduate retention in the nation, lots of students from elite schools end up leaving: nearly 40 percent of New York University grads and almost half of Columbia University grads leave the city upon graduation.

There is not one overall pattern of migration and mobility in America, but two. The most educated Americans continue to have much higher levels of geographic mobility than their less educated peers. They have more resources to move and face fewer obstacles to moving, and besides, the job markets they participate in tend to be far more concentrated.

While service and manufacturing jobs are spread relatively evenly across the county, jobs in high-paying, knowledge-intensive fields like finance, technology, media, and entertainment are clustered in a relatively small number of geographic areas. For people in the most educated and mobile categories, mobility is directly related to their ability to achieve economic success and transmit it across generations.

Less educated Americans have fewer resources to move, and some remain trapped in underwater homes or unable to afford the higher housing costs of opportunity-rich cities, as Alana Semuels reports. That limits their access to economic opportunity and their ability to move up the financial ladder.

America today is not only divided between rich and poor, but between the mobile and the stuck. More educated and advantaged Americans are clustering around areas of economic opportunity, while less educated Americans are pushed out of these areas, or trapped in other areas with less vibrant job markets and lower incomes. Ultimately, the mobility divide reinforces America’s worsening class divide.

This article is part of a series highlighting the themes of CityLab Paris, a convening of urban leaders.

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