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More Americans footloose, as US mobility rate ticks up

The mobility rate shows a modest jump, perhaps a sign of greater movement in the housing and job markets. Twelve percent of Americans moved over the past year, compared with a record low 11.6 percent a year before.

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In this October file photo, an under contract sign sits outside a home in Glen, Ill. Some economists tie robust mobility rates to vibrancy and activity in the labor and housing markets.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

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Americans, stuck in place by a frozen housing market and, perhaps, a desire to cling to the familiar in tough economic times, are once again beginning to pick up and move. 

The renewed mobility may be the latest small sign that holdover effects of the Great Recession are waning. Some economists tie robust mobility rates to vibrancy and activity in the labor and housing markets.

The change is not big – 36.5 million people, or 12 percent of Americans, relocated in 2011-12, up a tad from the previous year's 35.1 million (11.6 percent), which was a record low, the US Census Bureau reported Monday. But the point is, say experts, that the number is no longer frozen or getting worse. 

“It is really not a big change … it reminds me of the economy and the unemployment rate ... and I think the slow increase in migration reflects the slow changes in both of those,” says Cheryl Carleton, assistant professor of economics and statistics at the Villanova School of Business.

In the early 2000s, before the recession hit, about 14 percent of the US populace moved each year. Ms. Carleton, for one, anticipates steady movement back toward that level.

“As the economy plods along and improves slowly and as more people find jobs, we will see an increase in migration," she says. "The changes in migration mirror the changes in the economy ... but are also constrained by the housing market problems.”

The housing market continues to be a drag on the overall economy, but has shown improvement lately. Moreover, the share of people who owe more on their homes than their their homes are now worth has been dropping, interest rates on mortgages remain very low, and there is plenty of housing inventory for people to choose from as a result, in part, of record levels of foreclosures.

“As more adjustments to mortgages have been allowed [by lenders], more refinancing and more short-sales, individuals are able to sell and buy homes, which allows them to move,” Ms. Carleton says.

Of nine reasons surveyed as to why people moved, the top three are establishing one’s own household, a new job or job transfer, and family reasons.

Young people are generally the most mobile group of Americans, but their inclination to relocate still lags usual levels. 

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