In the modern age, the tight-knit communities of old have been slowly drifting apart as we become more mobile, and society is–so sadly–fragmenting because of it. Except that this tenacious narrative is dead wrong. All through the last century and this one, people in the U.S. have been moving less, not more.
Today, only 10% of U.S. residents move from year to year. Around 1950, 20% of people changed homes each year. In between, the number has been steadily declining, and will probably continue to do so. Further, most of those moves–around two-thirds–were in the same county. Between-state and between-county moves are even less common, and have also dropped, from 6.5% to under 4% over the same time period.
Go back to the previous century, which many people might believe was a time of bucolic, close-knit community, with generations of families existing together, and not locking their front doors en masse, and you’ll find that the population was in turmoil. [Writing for Aeon], Professor Claude Fischer of UC Berkeley, looks at the history:
Abraham Lincoln’s Sangamon County, Illinois, about 80 per cent of the households recorded as living there in 1850 could not be found there in 1860. These studies describe a widespread churning of the population, much greater than in the 20th century.
This slowing of internal migration has occurred despite waves of immigration, including the influx of Mexicans and Chinese in the 1970s. What’s happening?
Fisher, a sociology professor, says that it’s because we just don’t need to move any more. “My best guess is that the greatest single factor in the great settling down was the increasing physical and economic security of U.S. life,” he says.
Back when Americans were moving, the ones that moved were predominantly poor, constantly drifting to find work and security. Today, we have way better health care, a stable economy, and a country which is generally safe from one side to the other. Further, Social Security means we don’t have to move in case of personal disaster, and federal assistance takes care of us when there is a natural disaster.
At the same time, we have fewer personal motivations to move. The homogenization of cities means that you can drink the same Starbucks anywhere, and–proposes Fisher–telecommuting and working from home separates work from location, meaning you don’t need to travel to seek work. Increasingly, moving is done for personal reasons, or for professional reasons born from aspiration, not necessity–a talented programmer might still move to Silicon Valley, an actor to LA.
And that’s a good thing. Fisher differentiates between “forced” and “willing” movers. For willing movers, the change is usually positive, after a period of readjustment, and finding new friends. “Forced moves, on the other hand, resulting from foreclosure, divorce, job loss and the like, can leave long-term scars,” says Fisher. “Children are especially vulnerable. They don’t decide whether and where to move, and they are especially sensitive to their immediate environments. Children who move repeatedly are at particular risk.”
This constant movement is not only destabilizing for individuals and families, but is damaging to society, making it hard to build a supportive community. “In general, high rates of residential turnover in a neighborhood or town undercut local solidarity and the ability of neighbors to coordinate action, such as controlling the behavior of teens, ensuring child safety, and mobilizing politically. High turnover also increases residents’ anxiety,” writes Fisher. These problems can then lead to gentrification, which further fragments neighborhoods until the poorer residents are forced to leave.
So the settling down of America is a good thing. Increasingly, those that move do so because they want to, whereas those most likely to move out of desperation can find help and support close to home. The great migration myth is just that: Americans, it seems, just want to stay at home.