(April 2005) It’s one of the most durable and optimistic perceptions about the United States: The American people are increasingly on the move, especially across state lines.

Many scholars and social critics have recently argued, however, that rising mobility is eroding the primary source of elder care in the United States: family members who live close by.

But according to a new analysis of Census Bureau data published in the February 2005 issue of The Gerontologist, U.S. elder care is not being threatened by increasing mobility because of one simple fact: The United States is not an increasingly mobile society, if “mobility” means the propensity to move house.

If anything, say study co-authors Douglas A. Wolf, a demographer at Syracuse University, and Charles F. Longino, Jr., a gerontologist at Wake Forest University, Americans are more likely than ever to stay put. In 2003, just 14 percent of U.S. residents moved, the lowest rate since the Census Bureau began collecting these data in 1948. And only 3.2 percent of Americans moved across state lines between 1991 and 2003—down from 3.6 percent between 1948 and 1959.1 “The idea of an increasingly mobile society is a widely held but untrue fact,” says Wolf. (See figure for trends in U.S. mobility between 1948 and 2003.)


Percentage of People Ages 1 and Older Who Moved in the Past Year, 1948-2003

 

Source: Douglas A. Wolf and Charles F. Longino, The Gerontologist 45, no. 1 (2005): 5-11.


Wolf and Longino report that moving rates have declined over the past four decades among the age groups more likely to have elder care responsibilities. Total moving rates for people ages 30 to 44 have dropped from 20.3 percent in 1953 to 15.5 percent in 2003. Only 7.7 percent of U.S. residents between ages 45 and 64 moved in 2003, compared with 10.5 percent of this group 40 years earlier.

And mobility has even declined among young U.S. residents, traditionally considered the most likely group to change residence. Wolf and Longino calculate that total moving rates for people between the ages of 20 and 29 have declined from 37 percent in 1953 to 29 percent today. Interstate moves among the young also declined during that period, from about 8 percent to about 5 percent.

Longer Commutes, Two-Career Households, and Vacation Homes

Wolf and Longino cite several possibilities for the overall decline in U.S. interstate mobility:

  • A reduced need for work-related moves. Among people who move 500 or more miles, work is a common motivator: 38 percent of these people cite a job as the reason for their move, according to 2003 Current Population Survey data.2 But as both the use of cars and the number of people who are willing to commute long distances for work rise, Wolf and Longino say, people might feel less need to move an intermediate distance for a job. Between 1990 and 2000, the share of one-way commutes over 90 minutes long doubled—from 1.6 percent to 2.8 percent. Overall, the share of commutes (home to work) under 25 minutes declined, while commutes 30 minutes and longer increased. The average commute increased from 22.4 to 25.5 minutes, according to census data.3
  • An increasing number of dual-income, dual-career households. Two-careers may be less portable than one, say Wolf and Longino. In 1951, 77 percent of women in married-couple households were not in the paid labor force. In 1997, that share had dropped to 38.3 percent, according to the Census Bureau.4
  • Increasing homeownership. Homeowners are less likely to move than renters, and the number of homeowners in the United States has slowly grown over the last four decades, from 63 percent at the end of 1965 to 69 percent at the end of 2003.5 In 2003, 63 percent of movers were renters, while 37 percent were homeowners.6
  • An increasing number of vacation homes. The number of seasonal or vacation homes has increased by almost 500,000 over the past decade, from 3.1 million in 1990 to 3.6 million in 2000.7 Wolf says seasonal homes might be supplanting outright moves.

Still, while statistics clearly argue against it, the belief in an increasingly mobile society remains pervasive. In their article, Wolf and Longino cite how the phrase “our [or an] increasingly mobile society” has been used by scholars, government officials, and business owners for such diverse purposes as justifying state income tax cuts, advocating child-support enforcement initiatives, or advertising self-storage units or funeral services. A web search that they conducted on the phrase generated more than 1,000 hits.

It Depends on What You Mean By ‘Mobility’

But why is the mobility myth so persistent, even in scholarly discourse? Wolf speculates that many analysts might be mistaking their own experience as the norm. Census Bureau tabulations show that, unlike people with lower levels of educational attainment, people with graduate degrees are more likely to move more than 500 miles (31.6 percent in 2002-03) as they are to move under 50 miles (24.8 percent).8

For many analysts, however, the term mobility might encompass more than a strict demographic definition. For instance, as one of their examples of how scholars continue to perpetuate the “increasing mobility” myth, Wolf and Longino’s article quotes a 1999 paper by Sharon Tennstedt, director of the Institute for Studies on Aging and New England Research Institutes in Watertown, Mass., who argued that changing social trends such as “increased geographic mobility … will decrease the availability or willingness of family members to provide care to a disabled elder.”9

Despite the clear trends of reduced mobility, Tennstedt, a medical sociologist, defends her assertion. “They’ve taken the term geographic mobility very literally,” she says of Wolf and Longino. “I was thinking of it as more of a broader idea. People travel more, they travel greater distances to work, and that affects how much care that person can provide.”

Indeed, domestic U.S. travel has increased 9.8 percent from 1994 to 2003, according to the Travel Industry Association of America.10 Commuting time has also been rising, from 21.7 minutes in 1980 to 25.5 minutes in 2000.11 “If you’re traveling north to commute to work, and your parents live south, you may not have moved, but you have to travel a longer distance to provide care,” says Tennstedt.

And while total mobility rates have declined, Tennstedt isn’t sure that statistics on individual moves used by Wolf and Longino shed light on elder care issues. “These are individual data and not data about families—it says nothing about how close or distant families are,” she says, adding that proximity of family members is a crucial issue for elder care.

Wolf agrees with this criticism, but says that statistics on the geographic proximity of family members—otherwise known as “spatial separation”—are difficult to access. “It’s a challenge in doing migration research to have the right kind of data,” he says.

Some officials at elder care organizations continue to argue that long-distance caregiving is a growing concern. Bonnie Lawrence, spokesperson for the Family Caregiver Alliance/National Center on Caregiving, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, says that one of that organization’s most popular publications is a handbook for long-distance caregiving, and that questions about long-distance caregiving account for more than one-half the phone calls received at their hotline. “Long-distance caregiving is a major issue,” says Lawrence.

But Wolf insists that policymakers who are crafting elder care policy need to consider other factors before they worry about mobility.

“There are all kinds of social change that might inhibit family care—women’s greater involvement in paid labor; more divorce, which tends to stand in the way of intergenerational relationships; the growing prevalence of childlessness,” says Wolf. “There are lots of good reasons to be concerned about the future of elder care. But an increasingly mobile society? That isn’t one of them.”


Alison Stein Wellner is a writer based in New York City.


References

  1. Jason P. Schachter, “Geographic Mobility: 2002 to 2003,” Current Population Reports P20-549 (2004), accessed online at www.census.gov on March 28, 2005.
  2. Schacter, “Geographic Mobility: 2002 to 2003.”
  3. Clara Reschovsky, “Journey to Work: 2000,” Census 2000 Brief C2KBR-33 (2004), accessed online at www.census.gov on March 28, 2005.
  4. U.S. Census Bureau, “Measuring 50 Years of Economic Change Using the March Current Population Survey,” Current Population Reports P60-203 (1998), accessed online at www.census.gov on March 28, 2005.
  5. U.S. Census Bureau, “Housing Vacancies and Homeownership,” Current Population Survey/Housing Vacancy Survey, Series H-111 Reports (2005): table 14, accessed online at www.census.gov on March 28, 2005.
  6. Schacter, “Geographic Mobility: 2002 to 2003.”
  7. Unpublished data from Census 1990, 2005. “VACANCY STATUS—Universe: Vacant housing units Data Set: 1990 Summary Tape File 1 (STF 1), 100% data,” accessed online at http://factfinder.census.gov on March 29, 2005; Jeanne Woodward and Bonnie Damon, “Housing Characteristics: 2000,” Census 2000 Brief C2KBR/01-13 (2001), accessed online at www.census.gov on March 28th, 2005.
  8. Schacter, “Geographic Mobility: 2002 to 2003.”
  9. Sharon Tennstedt, “Family Caregiving in an Aging Society,” paper presented at the U.S. Administration on Aging Symposium on Longevity in the New American Century, Baltimore, March 29, 1999.
  10. Travel Industry Association of America, “Travel Statistics and Trends, 2003,” accessed online at www.tia.org on March 28, 2005.
  11. Reschovsky, “Journey to Work: 2000.”

For More Information

Douglas A. Wolf and Charles F. Longino, Jr., “Our ‘Increasingly Mobile Society’? The Curious Persistence of a False Belief,” The Gerontologist 45, no. 1 (2005): 5-11.