I grew up in Marietta, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. Reasonably, I thought that Atlanta qualified as an East Coast city. As an economic powerhouse, I considered Atlanta to be at least on par with Washington, Boston, and Philadelphia.
When I headed North to attend Georgetown University, I encountered a self-important set of students who had never been down South. They relied on stereotypes to inform them about what Southerners should look and sound like, and I didn’t fit the mold. I don’t have an accent, my family doesn’t own any guns, and I don’t understand the appeal of NASCAR. No one in my family is a veteran.
This anecdote says more about the prep school kids that still predominate at elite East Coast schools, but it also applies to regional variability in the United States. Regional cultural differences aren’t as significant as they used to be. While you can divide the United States into 11 different cultural nations, a substantial majority of Americans live in suburbs (no matter how you measure it). In these areas, local business is dominated by chain franchises, housing is uniform, and cultural institutions aim toward the median. A middle class family in Vestavia Hills, Ala. resembles a middle class family in the Inland Empire of California more closely than a rural family in nearby Mississippi.
Differences exist between people themselves. Race, gender, class, religion, and sexual orientation shape how people view the world. But compared to those factors, regional origin is a much weaker. Differences in culture persist between regions, but, I argue those are almost entirely attributable to differences in racial, ethnic, religious, and class makeup.
But even the economics of regionality are less important than they used to be. Historically, American migrations were driven by wage premiums: people picking up and moving to places with better jobs. We still see that in limited amounts today, as in North Dakota. But all Americans used to have a high level of mobility. Not so anymore.
The mover rate, defined here as the proportion of Americans who moved in the last year, has been on a steady decline for decades. According to an analysis by Mobility Magazine, the outlook for the $15 billion moving industry does not look good, having already shrank 1.5 percent since 2009. With a smaller stock of customers, movers in Alexandria, Va., for example, have already taken to emphasizing customer service over price.
Several factors can explain this decline in moving: an aging population, a high proportion of homeowners with underwater mortgages, bad job market. Each plays a role, but the decades-long decline in moving points to there being a larger underlying factor. There simply are fewer advantages of moving across the country than there used to be.
Paul Krugman argued a few weeks ago that the primary cause of interstate migration is not job opportunity, as most people usually assume. It’s the cost of housing. The data bears this claim out.
In fact, the states experiencing the most in-migration are the ones with the lowest housing costs.
A lot of commentators (such as The Washington Post‘s Robert Samuelson) cast America’s moving decline as a negative development. But is it so bad to stay near home? While there are monetary costs to moving, there are emotional ones as well. Being apart from family, friends, and familiar places all have their drawbacks. I’ve pondered moving back to Georgia on many occasions.* But, even with the snobby prep school kids, I can still find enough compassionate people to make DC feel like home.
*I would move to Athens. I wasn’t joking.
Photo: cobalt123 via Flickr