Why Aren’t More People Moving To Jobs?

Tyler Cowen notes the curious lack of labor mobility during the current recession:

Third, I find it striking that American mobility peaked sometime in the 1980s. Today there are people moving to find jobs, but not at anything like previous levels in earlier downturns. Some of that results from “the problems are in many different places” and that’s bad news. But some of it is also “being jobless today involves some greater cushions than in earlier times.” Very few people are facing potential starvation. For instance many more men have working spouses. Durable goods have become more durable, or in other words your car is less likely to break down and that makes joblessness somewhat easier to bear.

I think this is a puzzle that deserves more emphasis. The Burlington, Vermont metro area has an unemployment rate of 4.8 percent. It’s 5.6 percent statewide and 5.2 percent across New Hampshire. Why don’t people go to those places to get jobs? It’s cold, admittedly, and these are not big cities. But unemployment’s about 11 percent in the New Bedford metro area in Massachusetts, and that’s hardly a warm weather hotspot. There’s a 27 percent unemployment rate in Yuma, Arizona, and it’s only 9 percent in Tucson. And on top of that, there’s a whole low unemployment belt on the plains. It’s 6 percent in Iowa, 6.7 percent in Minnesota, 4.4 percent in Nebraska, 4.6 percent in South Dakota, 3.8 percent in North Dakota, 5.6 percent in Wyoming, 6 percent in Oklahoma. Even though these are low density places, in the aggregate this is a decent slice of the country that seems to have healthy labor market conditions. But you don’t see people flocking there. Is that really because the recession’s “not so bad,” or is it because the peculiar circumstances of the housing market are making it difficult for people to move? And to what extent do people just not know? Policy bloggers may spend time pouring over the details of the BLS release, but are people in the high unemployment parts of the country even aware of how much better conditions are in other places?