Despite being descended from pilgrims and pioneers, Americans today are the least mobile they’ve ever been. Even when they want to move to cities that are thriving from areas that aren’t, they can’t seem to make it happen. Lower mobility of labor is a problem for any economy. In a special column for the Wall Street Journal, Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg write:
West Branch, Michigan
When she graduated from high school, Taylor Tibbetts was a bright star in this small Northern Michigan town. She won an $18,000-a-year swimming scholarship to Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., and departed for her freshman year with high hopes.
Once on campus, however, she felt overwhelmed by her courses and scared and isolated among students from all over the country with different values. After just a week, her mother reluctantly agreed to bring her home.
Three years later, sitting on a vinyl booth at her family’s pizzeria in West Branch where she now works, Ms. Tibbetts, 21, says she longs to live in a thriving city like Denver or Nashville, and regrets her inability to leave here. …
It has also contributed to the nation’s deepening political divide. Small-town residents fed a populist revolt that helped put Donald Trump in the White House last year, reinforcing the administration’s plan to focus on issues such as curbing immigration and creating jobs through infrastructure spending. …
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.
A lawyer who leaves Alabama, Mississippi or South Carolina for a job in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut would spend just 21% of his income on housing after moving, Prof. Ganong has found. But a janitor making such a move would have his higher salary gobbled up by housing costs equal to 52% of income.
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