We are moving less – is it because we won’t, or can’t?

WASHINGTON — Americans are moving at the lowest rate since the government started keeping track, according to Census Bureau data released on Wednesday, as deep changes in the economy and the housing market increasingly freeze Americans in place.

The United States has long been one of the most mobile countries in the developed world. In the 1950s, about one-fifth of the American population moved each year. When factories would close, workers would move to other parts of the country to find jobs in new ones. Young people flocked to cities and rapidly growing suburbs, where jobs were plentiful and rent was cheap.

“In 1957 you could move to a flophouse in New York just to try it out for a while,” said Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University and author of “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.” “That doesn’t exist any more.”

These days, rents in many larger cities have exploded, making it much harder for a young person seeking better opportunities to afford to move. And low-wage jobs, after adjusting for the local cost of living, pay about the same everywhere.

The result is a nation where people move far less than they used to: Just 9.8 percent of Americans moved in the year ending in March, according to the newly released data. That was the smallest share since the Census Bureau started tracking it in 1947, and the first time it had fallen below 10 percent, said William Frey, senior demographer at the Brookings Institution.

“I keep thinking, ‘This is the year we’ll see a bit of an uptick,’ and it just doesn’t happen,” Mr. Frey said. He noted that the share of Americans who move each year now is about half of what it was in the 1950s.

The decline in moving rates has happened slowly, over many years, and marks a major shift in how Americans live. It is partly demographic: The country is aging, and older people are much less likely to move than younger people. But even younger people are moving less than before, and economists, who have been studying it for years, are still puzzling over the primary driver.

“The decline in migration is really widespread,” said Abigail Wozniak, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “It applies to all demographic groups — younger and older workers, renters and homeowners, more-educated and less-educated workers.”

The change is important, she said, but it is still too early to tell if it is good or bad.

“We still do not have quite enough information to know if this is worrying,” she said.

Most of the moving that happens in the United States is done by young people — in their late teens to their early 30s, and the decline has been particularly steep for them, Mr. Frey said. About 29 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds moved between 2005 and 2006. That dropped to 20 percent in the most recent period.

This is especially the case for moves within a county, which comprise about 60 percent of all moves nationally, Mr. Frey said. Over half of those moves happen for housing reasons, he said, citing Wednesday’s data.

The trend is partly a reflection of patterns among millennials as they came of age, Mr. Frey said. It is also a continued effect of the Great Recession. Slowdowns in the housing and job markets and delays in marriage and childbearing pushed their relocation rates down substantially.

Just 4 percent of people in their late 60s moved over the past year.

One result has been a geographic unevenness. Decades ago, less wealthy parts of the country tended to be the ones that attracted the most new residents, because lower rents and wages there drew in businesses, and people were more likely to move to where jobs were. But the economy is now less flexible, with prosperity clustered in larger cities and with businesses and people moving less.

“It used to be that poorer places grew faster, but that’s gone,” said Jay Shambaugh, an economics professor at George Washington University. “This is a really different economy than it used to be. It’s one where places that struggle continue to struggle.”

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