Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank), believes that Americans must be more willing to move in order to maximize their work opportunities. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, he writes:
Mobility is more than just a metaphor for getting ahead. In America, it has been a solution to economic and social barriers.
. . . Even for those already here, migration has long been seen as a key to self-improvement. As Horace Greeley so famously advised in 1865: “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.”
. . . Fewer and fewer people are taking Greeley’s suggestion. In the mid-1960s, about 20 percent of the population moved in any given year, according to the United States Census Bureau. By 1990, it was approaching 15 percent. Today it’s closer to 10 percent. The percentage that moves between states has fallen by nearly half since the early 1990s.
Brooks offers a provocative thesis built on statistics of which I was previously unaware, and he offers thoughtful policy prescriptions to support greater individual mobility.
On a personal level, I understand the benefits of mobility. I’ve made two major moves during my life, first from NW Indiana to New York City, and then from NYC to Boston. Both helped to open up significant career and work opportunities for me. By contrast, at times I’ve been frustrated when, at my downtown Boston university, some of my students have passed on promising opportunities in places as close as New Hampshire or Connecticut, citing a reluctance to “relocate.” Could my anecdotal experience be connected to Brooks’s observation that since the Great Recession, “mobility decline . . . has actually been the most pronounced among millennials”?
However, we also must assess the reality of what has been called the Great American Jobs Machine. In recent decades, the largest job growth has been in the lower paid service sector. True, marginally better opportunities may present themselves, as Brooks suggests, to people in Mississippi (6.3 percent unemployment rate) who move to New Hampshire (2.6 percent). But that won’t do much to reverse the burgeoning wealth gap and the ongoing demise of good jobs with decent wages and benefits.
Thus, it’s arguable that until we create a stronger base of jobs nationally, we’re doing only slightly more than shifting around the deck chairs on a sinking ship by encouraging people to move where jobs are in greater supply. A greater sense of flexibility and even adventure may help to better match the right people with the right jobs, but ultimately we need more good jobs just about everywhere.