Wanting to Move and Actually Moving: Talk is Cheap and Moving is Expensive

In the wake of COVID and the transition to remote working, there have been widespread reports that millions of Americans – and especially remote workers – plan on moving in the near future. Actually, this has been true long before COVID.

The Intention to Move Has Always Been High

Stated intentions to move consistently hover around 25% and have done so since at least 1997 (based on data from the University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics (the “PSID”)). This is consistent with recent surveys in the wake of COVID-19. In that regard, there is nothing to see. But it is also important to note that most people who want to move actually do not move.

An Intention to Move Does Not Usually Result in a Move

An important difference between the PSID and other data sources, including both the US Census and surveys of moving intentions, is that the PSID tracks individuals over many decades and we can therefore see if moving intentions translate to actual moves.

The data are clear: Migration intentions are a poor predictor of the actual migration.

For example,

  • 13% of surveyed adults state they will “definitely move” in the next few years, but only 14% of them actually follow up by moving from one state to another.;
  • Only 39% of all moves between states occur among people who thought they would move;
  • Meanwhile, 70% of the population report they will “definitely not move” in the next few years – but these account for 35% of all moves between states.

Moving is Expensive

Why people don’t move – even if they want to – is a complex story but it boils down to one important factor; Migration is costly and risky, especially in contemporary America. For example, most families are dual-income and so a move usually has short-term economic consequences for one of the spouses, the security of a new job in a new place is no longer a given, wages vary little from place-to-place – especially in the service sector -, and many people are priced out of large labor markets like Los Angeles, etc. These factors are reflected in the long-term decline in mobility (see Why Americans Are Staying Put, Instead of Moving to a New City or State). So, there is a real disconnect between wanting to move and actually moving.

What Does This Mean in the Current Environment?

A few takeaways:

  • Don’t expect a big uptick in migration in the wake of COVID just because recent surveys suggest that people are planning on moving;
  • Don’t use stated migration intentions for planning or policy;
  • Remember that Americans are not nearly as mobile as we used to be and that even the transition to remote work is not enough to overcome the factors which are causing greater levels of rootedness.

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