Sunday, January 07, 2018
Migration is a common story throughout the world. Immigrants move from Poland to the United Kingdom, or India to Singapore, or the Philippines to Japan in search of better prospects. Rural migrants leave the indigence of farm life for the bustle of China's big cities. And in the U.S., people are always moving around the country as well as immigrating from overseas. My own parents moved from the Midwest to Texas. This constant churning serves a key function in the economy. Labor is reallocated from declining regions to growing ones, and from sunset industries to young and expanding ones. It's not just workers and industries who benefit -- the entire economy gains from more efficient patterns of development.
This is especially important in the U.S. right now, since smaller cities are in decline. With fewer Americans employed in agriculture or old-line manufacturing, and with the rise of knowledge work and global supply chains, it probably makes sense for the country to have fewer, larger cities. That change will require a lot of people moving.
But in recent years the great American tradition of migration is under threat. Workers in a wide variety of occupations are moving less than they used to.
It's interesting to debate the causes of low mobility, but in the end, the real question is whether helping people move will improve their economic situation. For years, economists have been evaluating -- or creating -- programs that give poor people vouchers to relocate. The results are somewhat encouraging.
The most prominent relocation experiment was the Moving to Opportunity program. In the 1990s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development gave randomly selected poor families from Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City housing vouchers that could be used to move to neighborhoods with lower levels of poverty. A decade and a half later, economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz evaluated the program, and found that it yielded strong benefits for younger children in terms of future income, education, and family stability. Other effects were more ambiguous -- the program didn't result in higher earnings for the adults who moved, though their mental health probably did improve.
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