Immigration Has Divided America. Migration May Unite It.

Barn with U.S. flag decoration. Pixabay/Public domain

Internal mobility has the power to rescue the U.S. economy.

Immigration has divided America. A chasm has opened between those who support President Trump’s immigration pause, deportation surge and wall on the border of Mexico, and those who have protested against those policies and advocated that cities and universities become designated sanctuaries. Emigration too has become politicized, with some left-leaning celebrities casually forgetting their earlier vows to move abroad if Trump won. Today, when it comes to the migration, “united” has become something of a misnomer for America’s states. Nonetheless, there is a type of people movement that President Trump and Congress should not only tolerate but champion.

Internal migration—U.S. citizens moving within the country—is in many ways the story of America. Think of Lewis and Clark, Manifest Destiny, the Oregon Trail, the transcontinental railroad, the Ford Model T and the Eisenhower interstate highway system. Dynamism has been a hallmark of the country throughout its history. That is, until recently.

Internal migration has now reached historic lows. In 2016, just 11 percent of Americans moved. In the 1950s and 1960s, around 20 percent of Americans moved each year. In the 1980s and 1990s, around 15 percent did. Moreover, the distance of most moves has collapsed. Of those Americans who moved last year, 61 percent stayed in the same county. Just 14 percent of those who moved relocated to another state. One statistic reported by the New York Times sums up this trend: “the median distance Americans live from their mother is 18 miles.”

America’s growing immobility is not merely the result of an aging population. The Pew Research Center reported recently that just 20 percent of millennials moved in the last year. This is well below previous generations, with 26 percent of Generation Xers, 27 percent of late boomers, 25 percent of early boomers and 26 percent of the Silent Generation moving at the same point in their lives. Last year, the majority of millennials were not married, did not own a house and did not have children. None of the traditional reasons to stay put kept them in place. Yet the majority of millennials were nonetheless averse to crossing a state line for something better, even as that cohort had—and still has—a higher unemployment rate than the national average.

Of course, it has never been easier to move. Gas prices are down, job advertisements proliferate on the internet, Skype allows for job interviews from afar and Airbnb offers affordable temporary accommodations. Yet too many Americans seem stuck, and all too often seem stuck in places with few jobs or opportunities. Henry Olsen, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote in the National Interest last year that

while the standard deviation of unemployment rates across the fifty U.S. states has trended down in recent decades, it has not fallen nearly as much as one would expect in a country where the movement of information and people has never been easier. Instead, millions of able-bodied, working-aged Americans are staying in low-growth or declining areas. These “job deserts” are well known to most observers—Appalachia, parts of the Rural South and Midwest, aging towns and cities in America’s Rust Belt.

In his essay, Olsen argued that Republicans have suffered from an “empathy gap” with voters in recent elections, and that it is not enough to address that problem by cutting entitlements and taxes. The GOP should pass a twenty-first century Homestead Act, he wrote, one that incentivizes unemployed Americans to move away from job deserts, which means moving out of their home county and, yes, further away from mom if necessary. Such an act would prioritize retooling the system to increase incentives for moving and to decrease existing barriers.

One idea is to require people receiving unemployment benefits to search for work in faster growing areas in other states. “An autoworker thrown out of work in Michigan, for example, could be required to look for new auto-plant jobs in Kentucky or Tennessee, states where the auto industry is healthier than in Michigan,” Olsen wrote. Making Medicaid, Section 8 housing vouchers and food stamps more portable between states would also reduce existing barriers.