Why Don't More Americans Move Away From Home?

Fewer than half of Americans say they're likely to relocate, even if they think their town is headed in the wrong direction.

When you think about the history of the United States, stories of migration are a big part of the narrative. During the the 1800s, scores of people headed West in search of work, adventure, and gold. The 1900s brought a different sort of mass relocation, as millions of black Americans moved from the South to the North in search of opportunity and reprieve from intolerance. Even now, movement and migration seem baked in to the story of American progress, though on a smaller scale, as teenagers strike out for college in a different state or populations shift from rural to urban areas for job opportunities.

The most recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll took a look at where Americans live and how they feel about the areas they call home. It also asked respondents to ruminate on how likely they were to move from their current locations and what types of factors they considered persuasive enough to pack up their homes and head to new locales.

Of all respondents, about 54 percent said that they lived in close proximity to where they grew up. And about 35 percent of survey respondents who currently live near their childhood homes said they have lived in a different location for a significant period of time, excluding time for college, military, or something similar. Among this boomeranging group, geographic mobility was higher among Hispanics than other racial groups, and those who went to college were also more likely to have relocated prior to moving back home. In the college group, black and Hispanic Americans were more likely to live away from their hometowns than their white peers.

People who lived in rural areas were significantly less likely to have moved away from their hometowns. And people from the Deep South and mountain regions were most likely to have uprooted themselves at some point. And when it comes to striking out in the future, those in the mid-Atlantic region were most likely to say that they might consider a move in the future.

Lesley Whitecoff of Annapolis, Maryland, is among those in the area who don't plan on staying for the long haul. "My husband and I are going to retire in like two years. We'd like to go to Vancouver or Oregon, where they're much more bike-friendly," she says. But it's not just about living in an area that provides more opportunities to participate in their favorite activity, mountain-biking. The desire to move is also financially motivated for Whitecoff. "Property taxes have gone up," she says. "It's an expensive area to live in." She says now that she's closer to retirement, she's paying more attention to her costs than she once did, and leaving the area might prove easier on the couple's wallet.

When asked what circumstances would be compelling enough to consider moving, most people cited a job or new employment opportunities as good reasons to go. Issues related to family life also ranked highly. After that, respondents said that better community benefits—like a nicer neighborhood, cleaner air, better resources, or good colleges—might be reason enough to strike out to a new area. And though many poll respondents expressed dissatisfaction with their local economies, Americans ranked economic and financial factors among the least compelling reasons for a move.

But that may be because Americans mostly stay put. According to the poll results, 22 percent of respondents have lived in the same place for between 11 and 20 years, and 48 percent had lived in the same area for 21 years or more.

Sixty-one percent of respondents said the probability of relocation was not very likely—with 41 percent saying it wasn't likely at all.

Those who hail from rural areas and small towns were more likely to report staying in one area for multiple decades than their peers in larger metropolitan areas. Southern inhabitants were more likely to pick up and to move in five years or less, while those in the Mountain and Northeast regions were more likely to stay put.

Even though most Americans said that they liked the general direction their local areas were headed in, respondents had mixed feelings about the opportunities available in their areas for young people. Fifty percent of respondents said that they would not recommend their local area, while 42 percent said they would. City dwellers were the most apt to see their area as best for young people, with more than half saying they'd tell them to settle down there, while those in rural areas were less likely to encourage young people to come to their neck of the woods.

For those who didn't think there were enough economic opportunities to encourage people to settle in their towns, 44 percent would advise moving somewhere else in the United States, while only 6 percent think that moving outside of the country is a young person's best bet. And of those who thought that their local areas were headed in the wrong direction, only 46 percent said that the possibility of a move was at all likely.

Even though they are aware of the problems in cities and towns where they live, most Americans aren't considering moving anytime soon. Sixty-one percent of respondents said the probability of relocation was not very likely—with 41 percent saying it wasn't likely at all. For example, Marilyn Brown, a longtime resident of Cleveland, Ohio, says that her city has become significantly worse since she moved there. "A couple of weeks ago, a young boy held up my neighbor. I'm scared to go out the house by myself," says Brown. "When I first came here, it was nothing like this."

Brown says that there are lots of problems in Cleveland, from crime to streets that have fallen into disrepair. But she doesn't blame local officials: "The police and the mayor, they're doing all that they can. I have to give them credit for trying, but that trying isn't going anywhere."

Instead, she blames the poor economic situation, which has caused a dearth of jobs and an increase in problems for the city, she says. But despite the crime and lack of opportunity in Cleveland, Brown says she has no plans to leave. "I don't have a great big family. We're all right here together," she says. In addition to the family connections, Brown's reticence is partially because she doesn't think that a move would eliminate the hassles she faces in Cleveland, but instead just introduce different ones: "What good is that going to do me to leave here? I'd just be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Everybody is having problems with one thing or another."

The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll is the 22nd in a series examining how Americans are experiencing the changing economy. This poll, which explored how Americans rate conditions in their communities and whether they prefer local or national institutions to take the lead in responding to the country's challenges, surveyed 1,000 adults by landline and cell phones from February 18 through 22, 2015. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Consulting's Strategic Communications practice.