Executive Summary

Geographically, economic opportunity is unequally distributed across the United States. A disproportionate share of all private-sector jobs—one in five—are located in just four metropolitan areas: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle. This uneven distribution of jobs—and related variation in unemployment rates—mean that large numbers of Americans live in economically depressed communities with few jobs or other opportunities. These trends are occurring during a time when the economy has been in recovery for a decade, unemployment rates are low, and employers are complaining that they cannot find the workers that they need—all factors that have historically been associated with an increase in geographic mobility.  However, the data in this report show that geographic mobility generally, and mobility for work in particular, has declined substantially over the last several decades.

This report explores the research literature and analyzes long-term trends in the data to describe patterns in women‘s and men‘s geographic mobility, particularly for work. The report begins by presenting the evidence on trends in job-related geographic mobility from a gender perspective. The data shows that mobility varies widely over the life cycle: young people are more likely to move for jobs than middle-aged or older people; single people more than married people; and people with children less than people without children. The paper further investigates trends in mobility by race and ethnicity, for single and married parents, and for men and women with different levels of education, for women and men with incomes below the poverty line and from different regions of the country. These analyses show that geographic mobility has declined for all demographic groups of workers.

Next, this report assesses the validity of many common explanations for the decline in geographic mobility. The data strongly suggest that the observed declines in mobility are not due to changes in the composition of the workforce, but rather that there are fundamental changes in the costs of and economic returns to moving.

Finally, this report identifies responses that may help workers overcome mobility constraints, both by making it easier and more attractive for workers to move to good jobs, and by reducing the need for geographic mobility through place-based policies and the use of technological solutions.

Geographic Mobility has Fallen for Workers from All Demographic Groups and Regions of the Country

  • While men traditionally had higher rates of geographic mobility than women, women’s and men’s rates have converged, with both declining over time.
  • Rates of job-related mobility have declined for both women and men across all of the largest racial and ethnic groups between 2004-2008 and 2014-2018.

Decline in Mobility is Not Due to Changes in the Composition of the Workforce

  • Younger workers are more likely to move than older workers—more than 20 percent of workers in their mid-twenties had moved across county or state lines in the previous year, while less than five percent of those aged 58 or older had done so. The aging of the population, however, accounts for only a small portion of the overall decline in geographic mobility.
  • Married couples, women and men with children, and married, dual-earner couples are less likely to move than single women and men, women and men without children, and married couples that are not dual-earner couples. However, the data in this report show that mobility rates fell independent of marital, parental, or dual earner status. The decline was particularly sharp for dual-earner couples whose mobility rates dropped by 55 percent between 1999 and 2018.
  • Women and men with a bachelor’s degree or more are twice as likely to move for work as those with only a high school diploma. This mobility gap has increased over the last ten years; however, there has been a decline in mobility for both groups of workers and job-related mobility has declined in spite of the increased share of the workforce with a bachelor’s degree.
  • Geographic mobility rates have fallen substantially for workers with incomes below the official poverty line.
  • Women and men in the South have the highest rates of moving across county and state lines but women and men in all regions have seen an overall decline in mobility since 1996-1998.

Decline in Mobility Reflects a Number of Economic and Social Factors

The decline in workers relocating for work reflects a number of factors including the high social and economic costs of geographic relocation as well as the impact of structural changes such as changes in the occupational structure, increased occupational licensing, the rising cost of housing, and the lack of family supports such as child care. The economic costs of relocating can be prohibitive, while returns to relocating for work have declined for many low-wage workers.

  • Moving to another county or state for work means leaving behind support networks that assist with child care and other family caregiving needs, further increasing the costs of geographic mobility. As the baby boom generation continues to age and need more intensive care, this cost will only continue to increase.
  • Differences across states in licensing requirements are a potential cost that workers face in their efforts to relocate to take advantage of economic opportunities in other states.
  • As many jobs have been deskilled and wages in low-wage occupations have converged across place, the economic returns to geographic mobility have declined.
  • Another cost borne by low-income families when moving for work is the loss of public benefits, such as housing subsidies or child care assistance, that are tied to their current location. Long waiting lists for these services in economically thriving cities undermine the ability of workers to take advantage of the employment opportunities in new locations.
  • Large increases in the cost of housing in cities with the most dynamic economies reduce the returns to moving for work and in many cases make it impossible for low-wage workers to live in these cities.

Increased Family Supports in Economically Vibrant Cities, Combined with Place-Based Policies in Economically Depressed Cities Can Improve Outcomes for All Workers

The broad-based decline job-related mobility in spite of the growing polarization of employment opportunity suggests that larger structural issues are acting as barriers to relocation for many workers. These barriers include stagnant wage growth that makes moving less financially beneficial, a lack of family-friendly supports—such as high quality, affordable child care—for working families, and a lack of affordable housing in the areas where jobs are growing.

Policies that address the increasing costs and diminishing returns to moving, especially for workers in low-wage jobs, include:

  • Employers and state and local governments in cities with thriving economies and growing demand for workers could make it more attractive for workers to move to their states, by working to increase the number of jobs that pay above the national median wage for workers, especially in jobs that do not require a college degree; raising the minimum wage to a living wage; and implementing a state earned income tax credit if the state does not already have one.
  • Housing subsidies could be particularly helpful for single parents and low-income workers who might otherwise be unable to move to cities with high and increasing housing costs.
  • Ensuring that occupational licenses are accepted across state borders would overcome some of the limits of state-by-state licensing.
  • Helping families address their need for assistance with affordable, high-quality child care and elder care would increase the feasibility of balancing work and family demands. Local resource hubs, for example, can help women and men establish the connections they need for care work.
  • Even if all the costs of moving are addressed and incentives to move are increased, not all workers will be motivated to relocate. Family and community ties matter and are becoming even more important in the context of an aging population. It will be equally important to stimulate job growth where workers live and invest in the supports that workers will need to be economically secure where they are.

Understanding the factors that enhance or diminish geographic mobility for women and men can help communities, employers, and policymakers implement innovative ideas to both increase mobility to some locations to meet growth in demand for workers, and use technology and employment innovations to more equitably distribute opportunity in other locations in the future. Because moving disrupts existing support networks, and may be less economically beneficial to women because of their lower earnings, a greater emphasis on creating family-friendly cities in city and regional planning could help attract families to new locations.