Mobility Understood Best at Metro Scale, Not State

Analysis of 2010 Census data reveals that Americans are relocating at the lowest levels recorded since the public began tracking these trends in 1948. Mobility is influenced by conditions in housing and labor markets, which vary substantially by region or metropolitan area, and are continuously shifting.

That’s why I take issue with an interpretation recently put forth by respected author and speaker, Richard Florida, in a pair of short posts (“America the Stuck” and “The Geography of Stuck“). He distills his interpretation into a claim that “America can be divided into two distinct classes, the stuck and the mobile.” These “classes,” in his view, are not only sorting themselves geographically, but by state: Residents of coastal states are mobile, others are not.

In my view, the Census data really don’t support this narrative. As Florida and others have documented, America’s economic and cultural landscape is increasingly metropolitan. Those metro areas with the highest proportion of residents born in another state are found primarily in states that Florida highlights as “mobile”:

These data don’t support the “two class” thesis for two reasons. First, while clearly in-migration is good for regions in forms including new ideas, cultural vitality and diverse labor pools, the specific kind of mobility Florida is calling out doesn’t appear to correlate with economic strength. The right column in the table shows each region’s rank (out of 366) in income growth from 2009-10; these aren’t the nation’s star performers. Second, as the map below illustrates (click on it for a larger image or see the source brief here), mobility continues to occur within states, from rural or micropolitan regions to larger metros and among metros. This is occurring in the states he calls mobile, and in many of the states he deems “stuck.” As it turns out, neither label accurately reflects recent trends.

There are structural shifts underway, and Florida has named some aspects of these in recent years. This most recent chapter strikes me as a departure from his record of nuanced analysis. Some American communities are clearly less mobile than others, but these dynamics haven’t developed in clean ways that follow state boundaries in an either/or fashion. They’ve developed by region, subregion, and neighborhood – and that’s where our focus belongs.

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