Posted by: Mark Nielsen | March 20, 2008

Stay Still, America!

I saw a few shocking statistics this week about residential patterns and movement of households in the U.S. 

Neighbors Project , a nonprofit organization dedicated to reasonable debate and action on gentrification issues, said this: 

… approximately 50% of city residents moved between 1995 and 2000. Though not as shocking a figure as an annual 50% moving rate, this figure nonetheless suggests that city neighborhoods are likely to have seen a great deal of population turnover within a relatively short time.

According to the same source, the national average of households that move to a new location, including suburban and rural movers, is closer to 25% per year. Those are HUGE numbers, aren’t they? Or am I just too out of touch with mainstream American culture?

Do the above math one way, and that makes every family move once every four years. Do it another way, maybe some families stick around longer, but that means others then have to move three or four times as often, maybe up to twice a year. I don’t know how the fine details of the demographics break down. But what I do know is that in post-industrial cultures like ours, one of the hallmarks of poverty is transiency (the tendency to live in several locations over the course of a year). Maybe people become unable to pay their rent due to some monetary crisis, and they move in with grandma, or a sibling, for six months or longer. Or else they lose a job, have to find a another new low-wage job, and then must move closer to it to control transportation costs and commute time (time is money, after all, even for the poor).

Whatever the reasons, this transiency makes for a great deal of family instability, which is one of the factors that keeps them stuck in that cycle of poverty, often for several generations. Kids who keep getting pulled out of classrooms mid-year can’t progress as well academically, and have a harder time developing lasting friendships as well. Families worried they aren’t going to be around in four months don’t join support groups, like a tenants’ organization or a local church. Ironically, these are the very groups and support networks that poor families need in order to stop being so transient, but the families get so used to flying under the radar in a given neighborhood that they often become excluded by default.

Now this is mostly conjecture on my part (other than that 25% figure). Nevertheless, I’m putting a few theories together based on what I’ve directly observed in Evanston, Skokie, Chicago, the far western Chicago suburbs, and several other locations where I have a lens to see into the neighborhood a bit (a sibling, a friend, a church contact in some other city). And I’m pulling in some ideas from people like Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourners magazine and co-founder of Call to Renewal, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reversing the cycle of poverty for millions of Americans. [Institutionally, CTR was folded back under the Sojourners umbrella in late 2006 and now appears to function like the anti-poverty division of Sojourners].

Hey, I just googled Call To Renwal and saw that their keynote speaker at the June 2006 conference was none other than Barack Obama! That was before he announced his candidacy, I believe. Further evidence that he’s not just putting on some dog-and-pony show for the campaign, but has been consistent throughout his career and is genuinely concerned about the needs of the poor. The text of Barack’s CTR keynote speech (on useful religion’s role in cooperating with government to create workable progressive policies) can be found here. He also takes some angry swipes at that hack Alan Keyes, which is a nice bonus.

Back to the housing issue… My main reason for bringing all this up is simple: It seems to me it would be hard to develop a sense of community, and cooperation, and group ownership of problems, in a society where no one will stay put long enough to get involved with each other. This raises a lot of tough questions: What role do long-term families, with deep roots and investment in a specific location, play in the health of a neighborhood? Does a neighborhood start looking a little more run-down every year because nobody’s watching closely for changes, and maybe calling the city to tell them what’s falling apart? Who’s calling in about that broken swingset in the park, or a rise in a certain kind of graffiti? With all these movers, is anyone still sitting on the front stoop in the summer, talking to their longtime neighbors as they pass? Who’s going to put a pretty little tree in their front parkway, especially if they know they’re only going to be in this house for two years? (I can hear a frazzled or overworked dad saying “Why bother?”) Is the number of “block parties” going up or down, nationally? I’d like to know. I suspect they’re down — way down.

I realize that the poor are not the only ones becoming more transient nowadays. Corporations pack up and move more now, often taking their middle class employees with them. Young adults do their two to five post-college years in the city, closer to the fun and action, and then “settle down” somewhere further out in the ‘burbs. Upwardly mobile homeowners in the inner suburbs look to upgrade their house size or get more land, so they move further out to the fringes after just a couple of years in their “starter house”.

But there are real social costs to this kind of thinking, for people at every economic level. I still can’t believe, for example, the number of people who live in Kenosha, Wisconsin and commute by train five days a week to Chicago for work. That can’t leave much time for family, if Mom or Dad get home from work at 7pm, and Junior has an 8:30 bedtime.

Or here’s another good one: the housing boom, which is now a bust.  We can now see in hindsight that it was a house of cards built upon the very notion that people want to move, have to move, are driven to move (either physically, or by moving up to a higher level of consumer spending, which they then can’t support given their present job and their suddenly ballooning mortgage). The inflated housing market was based almost entirely on shortsightedness. We’re becoming a rootless society, and it shows in the tension and alienation that we feel on a daily basis. We have no long-term investments in anything other than our kids’ college fund and our own retirement (if that).

Besides, all this moving strikes me as somewhat compulsive and counterintuitive. I’m a person who’s lived within an hour’s drive of my parents and siblings all my life. In 42 years, I’ve lived in a grand total of six houses or apartments (not counting one dorm and one apartment during college). Those six dwellings were in just four towns. And as of this month, I’ve been in my present home for ten years. It’s nice. I don’t have a master bathroom, but who cares? I like the neighborhood, the neighbors, the schools. There are a lot of reasons to stay put.

So stay still, people. Join the YMCA, the PTA, maybe plant a few tulips out front. Keep your job, if it works for your overall quality of life. Don’t try to break the bank, or spend every last dime of your monthly income to have the perfect house. Just find your comfort level, stay put, and enjoy what you’ve got. I know it’s hard, but I hope we can do it. Because we can’t afford to move around this much. Sure we may have the money, but do we have the strength to withstand the stress without falling apart?



  1. Although the 25% every year rate is, indeed, huge, it doesn’t mean that people move once every four years, I think. Assuming they mean it as a probability, it would mean that the probably of someone moving in four years is about 68%. The formula (my favorite, by the way) is 1-(1-p)^n, where p is the probability of something happening once, and n is the number of trials; this is the probability of something happening at least once in n trials with a one-time probability of p.

  2. Okay. You had me at “68%”. Then you lost me with all that foreign language stuff at the end. (Ha!)

    Thanks for the clarification, Will. And by the way, what kind of nerd has a “favorite” equation? Only the best kind, IMHO.

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