Not Moving to Opportunity

InterstateMigrationLabor market mobility in the United States has declined. Interstate migration is down (graph at right from Molloy, Smith, Trezzi and Wozniak) and so is in-state-migration, especially for the less well educated. Where once people responded to shocks by moving to opportunity now they are likely to stay put and retire early or take-up disability insurance. Ben Leubsdorf at the WSJ reviews some of the evidence:

“A state typically returns to normal after an adverse shock not because employment picks up, but because workers leave the state,” economists Olivier Blanchard and Lawrence Katz wrote in a 1992 paper.

This time might be different in some ways. Three economists wrote in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper last year that compared with the prerecession years, mass layoffs after 2007 prompted a “muted” migration response and many workers instead dropped out of the labor force.

In a new paper, also cited by Leubsdorf, Danny Yagan at Berkeley suggests that reduced migration is only part of the problem. What has made the aftermath to the 2008-2009 recession so bad is that migration is low at the same time that it has become more necessary than ever. The 2008-2009 recession was especially localized, it hit some places harder than others and in a way that appears to be permanent. But migration has been too slow to solve the problem.

The usual story is that in-and-out migration equalizes wage, unemployment and employment rates across the nation. Some places may be harder hit than others but movement quickly makes the US into one labor market. In the aftermath of this recession, however, that isn’t happening for employment rates. Using a clever research design that looks at workers with similar education and skills doing the same jobs at the same large firms but in different locations, Yagan finds that location continues to matter years after the recession has ended. Workers who worked in the places hardest hit in the 2007-2009 recession have employment rates today that are 1% lower than similar workers in regions that were less hard hit. Convergence has been unusually slow:

I conclude that living in a hard-hit area has caused enduring joblessness and exacerbated inequality. If the latest convergence speed continues, employment differences across the United States are estimated to return to normal in the 2020s—more than a decade after the great recession.


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