Mobility on the Decline

Faced with an economic downturn and a bursting real estate bubble, Americans look to be staying put in greater numbers. According to Ball State demographer Michael Hicks, interviewed in an article examining the trend in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Property values have dropped so much, people can't pick up and move the way they used to."

In April, the Census Bureau reported that in 2008, the "national mover rate," declined to 11.9 percent, down from 13.2 percent in 2007. This marks the "lowest rate since the bureau began tracking these data in 1948." As William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institute, puts it, "the most footloose nation in the world is now staying put."

According to Frey, the middle of the decade was marked by a "mobility bubble," spurred on "by easy credit and superheated housing growth in newer parts of the Sun Belt and exurbs throughout the country". As the recession took hold through 2008, migration to suburbs and exurbs fell "flat in a hurry," showing "just how rapidly changing housing market conditions can affect population shifts."

While, as Frey suggests, people may be moving into suburbs and exurbs at a slower rate, central cities within metro areas continue to lose population. The Census Bureau reports that during 2008 "principal cities within metropolitan areas experienced a net loss of 2 million movers, while the suburbs had a net gain of 2.2 million movers." While the downturn in migration may help central cities hold onto some of their population, Frey contends that "it remains to be seen whether the migration-fueled engines of the early 2000s—especially the Sun Belt and outer metropolitan suburbs—will regain their former status."