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For struggling Americans, nowhere to go

On the way West, 1936. Photo: Bettman/Getty

For years, economists and other experts have been puzzled by a uniquely American anomaly: after centuries as probably the most restless place on the planet — its people shifting often thousands of miles around the country for a better life — the U.S. has at once become much more stationary.

The big picture: The explanations for all this stillness vary, but the most compelling are perhaps the simplest: people have dug in because there appears to be nowhere to go — no "promised land" of relatively high wages on which they can build greater dreams.

  • A much overlooked difference from the times of wagon trains and the Dust Bowl: The internet, which leaves very little mystery as to what lies at the other end of almost any road taken.

What's happening: In a paper released last week, David Autor, a pioneering labor economist at MIT, said the geography of jobs has changed. Cities, once the hope of people seeking a middle-class life, are now a symbol of the disappearance of well-paid, middle-skill work.

The culprits — automation and the shift of jobs abroad. And people know that it's the same story everywhere, so they are "acting rationally," Autor tells Axios, and staying home.

  • By the numbers: In a 2015 paper, economists from the Minneapolis Fed said American migration across state lines fell by 50% from 1991 to 2011. Such movement is at the lowest level since 1948, when the government began to track such figures.
  • Companies around the country are pleading for skilled workers. But they are looking for higher-level skills than those possessed by the men and women who ordinarily would be found in caravans, moving for better times.
  • What's largely left in the workforce are, on one end, jobs requiring only a high school education, and on the other college graduates. Only 20% of jobs require just a high school education, said Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

The internet is a key unspoken actor in this dynamic of motionlessness. According to the Minneapolis Fed report, people know much more what they are getting into, and are seeing little romance in experiencing it for themselves. "There isn't this a sort of naive, 'I'm from Northern Wisconsin, and I'm going [to California] for the Palm trees,'" Carnevale tells Axios.

I asked a string of other economists why Americans no longer move.

Joan Williams, UC Hastings: "A more important factor is the Two Body problem, as it's called in academia. Families now need two better jobs, not just one. And they have to be so much better that the family will all be better off even after paying for services they get a home for free, notably child and elder care."

Andrew Challenger, Challenger, Gray & Christmas: "It can be a cultural issue. People are scared of moving to the big city. When there is a very divided political and cultural moment, it could certainly keep some people from moving for opportunities."

Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown University: "From 1946 through the 1970s, you could be pretty fancy free. If you were able-bodied and had a good attitude, there was something for you out there. Even without a high school education, you could get a job. Then the boom was over, and everything changed. In the 1970s, automation across industries began, and starting in the early 1980s, a double-dip recession. Computing skills began to be required, and better education. We are just a mature post-industrial society. The Tom Joads are in trouble."

Mark Zandi, chief economist, Moody's Analytics: "Because people don’t need to move to the job, they can do the job where they already live. The creation and use of information can be done almost anywhere. This even applies to those with lesser skills, who are increasingly part of the information economy."

Daniel Shoag, Case-Western University: "The big action is on where people move, not so much a general decline in overall mobility. I know that's a controversial point, but my read of the data is more in line with this. In terms of where people move, I think it's mostly about out of control housing markets more than the internet."