Slow Growing and Staying Put

Stagnant, shrinking and aging populations have hurt the economies of other communities our size

By Kellyn Brown

In contrast to the Flathead Valley’s rapid population growth, fewer Americans are moving than at any time in at least 70 years. In 1985, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 20 percent of us moved somewhere else. In 2018, less than 10 percent had, the lowest number since the agency began tracking mobility in 1948.

There are a number of reasons for this, some more obvious than the next. To be sure, more Americans can work remotely from home, eliminating the need to pack up and leave. But even when there may be better opportunities elsewhere, many employees are staying put.

It turns out, money and the chance for a promotion isn’t everything to everyone.

A recent report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York finds other, often-overlooked factors contributing to America’s reluctance to move. Previously, studies explored the impact of housing costs and the labor market on someone’s mobility. Instead, this report measured people’s “migration attitudes … by asking them to classify themselves as ‘mobile,’ ‘stuck’ or ‘rooted.’”

Those three classes were identified by Richard Florida in his book, “Who’s Your City?” And he unpacked the Federal Reserve Bank’s findings for CityLab.

A full 47 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as rooted. “Their reasons for not moving,” Florida writes, “ are more psychological than economic: proximity to family friends, and their involvement in the local community or church.”

Fifteen percent described themselves as stuck, or lacking the means to move. And 38 percent described themselves as mobile.

The impact of a citizenry averse to migration can be far-reaching. The report raises concerns over declining mobility’s impacts on economic growth and efficiency in the labor market. Lower-skilled workers can be especially impacted when they are unwilling or unable to leave for greener pastures, which can lead to “increased inequality, political polarization and the growing urban-rural divide.”

Moreover, low migration rates are exasperated by a stagnant U.S. population, which is growing at its slowest pace in 80 years. Nine states actually lost people between 2017 and 2018.

For its part, Montana has grown steadily in recent years, while some of its urban areas have exploded. The Bozeman and Kalispell micropolitan statistical areas are the first- and third-fasting growing in the country, capturing a shrinking number of Americans willing to migrate. And, despite frustrations over everything from housing costs to road congestion, the alternative is far worse.

Stagnant, shrinking and aging populations have hurt the economies of other communities our size as millenials head to Seattle, or Denver, or Austin. For Northwest Montana to continue to attract employers and employees to what is still largely a rural area has been a boon for the region. Just a decade ago, following the Great Recession, Flathead County had one of the highest jobless rates in the state, and, in turn, its population was flat.

Most of us want sustainable growth — where municipal services keep pace with demand; where traffic moves relatively smoothly; where development is balanced with open space. But no growth can be a recipe for financial disaster.

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