Author: Joseph Kosten
Americans instinctively know that sometimes, in order to move up, you have to move out. And moving from one place to another has long been a key element of upward mobility in the nation. Until now.
Today, few cities in the country combine economic dynamism with affordability. New trends, meanwhile, demonstrate that while some people are still moving, their reasons aren’t what they used to be.
Throughout history, brave citizens have left the familiar behind for a new home offering a blend of economic opportunity, affordability and quality of life. The Census Bureau’s latest metropolitan population estimates, released March 23, show once again that the fastest growing large cities in the country tend to have strong economies and an attractive cost of living. They also have good weather, ample amenities and newer infrastructure than their older, slower-growth peers. ??Of the 20 fastest growing metro areas in the country last year, the three major cities with populations exceeding 1 million residents were Austin, Raleigh and Orlando — all of which have been attracting job seekers for years because they offer good employment in a pleasant environment that people can afford.
But the Census figures are also a reminder that the pursuit of opportunity and geographic mobility are decoupling in today’s America in unprecedented ways.
Nine of the 20 fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country are retirement destinations in which deaths outnumber or roughly equal births. To put it grimly, nearly half of America’s fastest growing cities are fueled not by scrappy citizens in search of a better future, but by retirees making one last move to spend their remaining days in a pleasant place.
Traditionally, rapidly growing cities have been built by ambitious people looking to make a better living and start a family. But there has been a dramatic shift over the past 15 years. Only two cities among the 20 fastest growing ones were retirement destinations between 2000 and 2003. Today, older, richer Americans are driving metro growth while younger, poorer people stay put. Domestic migration is at its lowest point since World War II because working-age people are not moving like they used to.
How has a nation of immigrants with “go West, young man!” knitted into its DNA become a land of immobile workers and mobile retirees?
Various explanations have been offered, among them two general trends behind America’s declining geographic mobility among working-age adults. First, the rise of dual-income households with similarly earning spouses has made it less likely that both would want to relocate simultaneously to a new city. In this respect, declining mobility is the result of positive achievements such as an increase in women in the workforce and a decrease in the gender pay gap.
The second trend is a more troubling decrease in mobility among younger, less affluent Americans owing to what some analysts see as policy disincentives. These include locally administered public benefits, health insurance and licensure requirements that make moving too much of a hassle.
The recent Census figures hint at a third, related trend that also might be reducing geographic mobility: the need for financial resources to move to nice places. Too many cities and states make it difficult or expensive to do so. Affluent retirees can afford to move to nice places, and they are clearly doing so. But for many working-age people, relocating is not feasible.
Three of the top four fastest growing major metro areas — Austin, Orlando and Las Vegas — are in states with no income tax. They also tend to be more affordable than their peers, thus attracting old retirees and young job seekers alike. In 1990, Denver and Portland were as affordable as Austin. Today, they are much less so because of more restrictive housing and land-use policies. Like any growing city, Austin has become more expensive over time, but its affordability is still on par with Phoenix, whereas Denver is on par with Seattle.
The interplay of supply and demand with increasingly restrictive policies in growing cities tends to raise the barriers of entry to a city over time. It should be no surprise, then, that highly educated people with higher incomes are more likely to move to faster growing cities than people with lower levels of income and education.
No national policy can fix the fact that too few cities in the country combine economic dynamism with affordability. Rather, it falls to municipal leaders to limit restrictive land-use and housing policies, ensure that good schools are widely distributed, and provide amenities in a safe environment that can be enjoyed by all classes of people. Until we have more Austins, Las Vegases, Raleighs and Orlandos, geographic mobility in America will increasingly be a privilege of the upper classes.
Ryan Streeter is director of Domestic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.