Why Moving Isn't All Bad

When lower-income Americans move, it's seen as a result of displacement instead of opportunity. This negative perception needs to change.
January 2016
(Shutterstock)
By Aaron M. Renn  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute

There are two reigning views of internal migration in America. For the educated middle class, it’s seen as a good thing. Moving out means moving up. Indeed, most of us see our own moves as representing an opportunity to get ahead in life. It’s the same for immigrants from other countries, who move here searching for a better life.

But when it comes to lower-income Americans, particularly blacks and Hispanics, migration is almost always seen as a bad thing. The overwhelming narrative is one of displacement instead of opportunity.

This negative perception of low-income minority migration is important because migration in general is strongly associated with upward economic mobility. As my Manhattan Institute colleague Scott Winship puts it in his new report When Moving Matters: “The evidence suggests that being willing and able to move -- particularly to a new state and between childhood and adulthood -- is associated with a range of better economic outcomes.”

Using Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Winship goes back as far as 1880 to look at how migration and economic mobility have changed over time. As he documents, the effect of an interstate move on a person’s future economic status is big. In 1970, for those who had been born into a household with an income in the bottom 25th percentile, there was a 13-point gap in adult income between men who had moved across state lines in the previous five years and those who had not. That is, a man staying in the same state had only moved up to the 28th percentile of income on average, while a man moving to a different state had moved up to the 41st percentile.

This gap has gotten bigger over time. By 2010, it was up to 21 points. And the change for women was even starker: The gap for female interstate movers versus those who stayed where they were went up from 9 points to 24 points during that time. In short, long-distance migration is strongly correlated with improved upward mobility for people who start in lower-income circumstances, and it has become a bigger deal in recent decades.

The good news is that the kinds of migration associated with economic improvement haven’t been in decline. Rather, much of the widely reported fall in migration rates comes from a decline in people moving within states, often within their same local community. These moves do not seem associated with economic status in the way that longer-distance ones are.

The bad news is that lower-income blacks and Hispanics have lower levels of the beneficial kind of migration than do lower-income whites. Winship stresses that his research doesn’t prove that migration causes upward mobility. It may be that those who move are people who would have succeeded regardless of where they lived. But the fact that fewer blacks and Hispanics than whites are moving suggests that some of them who could benefit from migration aren’t able to take advantage of it.

The psychology problem arises immediately upon considering policy prescriptions. Because thinking about black and Hispanic migration is so overwhelmingly based on the narrative of displacement, such as through gentrification, policies designed to provide more opportunity for them to move may be viewed skeptically. Given American history in this regard, that’s understandable.

Fortunately, however, the kinds of moves likely to happen as a result of displacement are those that do not seem to affect economic mobility. If someone is priced out of a gentrifying city neighborhood and must move to a struggling inner suburb, this does not tend to have either a positive or negative effect on economic mobility.

The longer-distance migration that does produce economic benefits is much less likely to result from displacement, other than in the case of rare natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. So undertaking policies to provide more opportunity for longer-distance migration has less chance of being a de facto form of displacement. Those policies will require us to see lower-income black and Hispanic migration in the same way that we view it for higher-income whites or for international immigrants.

It is likely that many of those reading this have themselves moved, as I have several times. Think about what those moves meant to us. Most often, they were good things because we moved to chase an opportunity for schooling or a job. I wasn’t forced to leave my hometown in Indiana when I graduated from high school. Nor did anyone make me move to New York City.

I am enormously grateful for the opportunities America has given me to move away to college and build a career in multiple cities. We need to make sure as a matter of equity and inclusion that low-income minority children, not just working-class white kids like me, get those same opportunities. But until we see their mobility in the same way we see everyone else’s, we will never undertake the policies that would give them that opportunity.