Relocating because of the recession.

Snapshots of life at home.
May 20 2009 4:16 PM

Moving Truck Courtesy of the Recession

What it's like to relocate because of the downturn.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Americans are not moving en masse because of the Great Recession, unlike the exodus from the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Instead, they are staying put more than they did before the downturn. The number of people in the country who relocated between spring 2007 and spring 2008 was greater than 35 million, but it was also 9 percent less than the year before. The rate of mobility, as the Census Bureau calls it, has been falling since the mid-1980s. But last year's drop is more dramatic than the decrease in almost any other year in the previous two decades.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

It's not necessarily a bad sign, socially or economically speaking, when people move less. Over the longer term, the trend links up with more home ownership. It could also tie in to a greater attachment to place, a gratified embrace of stability. On the other hand, if people become more resistant to moving than they were in the past, that suggests they would be less willing or able to follow jobs wherever opportunity takes them. And that kind of hopping from place to place is a key feature of the nimble American economy.

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I'm interested also in another, more amorphous question: Now that moving is less common, is it harder to take in stride? The answer, judging from the responses I got to my questions about uprooting connected to the recession, is that it all depends on the reason why. Some people were deeply dismayed by moves that signified for them a scaling back of aspiration. At the same time, I was struck by the stoicism of some of my correspondents, especially those who were moving not for themselves but for their families. They weren't retreating to their parents' homes in that time-honored, if fraught, mode of hiding out in your childhood bedroom. They were moving, or helping their parents move, because their family needed them.

Erin is an MBA graduate. She has a good job. Her husband did, too, until he was laid off recently. They own a house in Seattle. They also have two cars, two dogs, and no kids. They can pay their bills with her salary and what he's collecting in unemployment insurance. It's Erin's mother-in-law who is in trouble. She had a second mortgage for her condo in Reno, Nev., that she treated as a revolving line of credit, while taking the money that Erin and her husband sent every month, using it to pay down the mortgage, and then spending it again. When her mortgage came due, so could a balloon payment of $25,000, Erin and her husband realized. "We were in shock," Erin writes. "Just at the time that she should own her own house free and clear, she would lose it."

Refinancing didn't work. Erin and her husband moved her mother-in-law from Reno to their house. The moving expenses went on their credit cards. They hoped to sell the condo for $80,000 to pay off Erin's mother-in-law's debts—she paid nearly that much for it before the housing bubble—but the sagging market means the current price is probably more like $45,000. So no go.

Erin didn't complain as she outlined all of this. Her husband is used to taking care of his mother—"He has been helping her make financial decisions since he was 10," Erin writes. And so they are dealing. "I guess what it comes down to is that I could stew in resentment, but it wouldn't change the situation. I get frustrated and annoyed, and have the occasional fit at my husband—usually over silly small things. That way, when the big stuff comes up, I can cope."

Andie—not her real first name, and you'll see why in a minute—is in the midst of a more vertigo-inducing parent-child role reversal. Her father's business is ailing financially. Her mother works, too, but not for a high salary. Andie, who is 29, is the oldest child; she and her siblings grew up going to private school. Now Andie's parents are falling $5,000 short every month. And so Andie decided to move back from the East Coast job and city she really loved to her parents' West Coast home. She found a new job with an Internet startup, not in her field but the best she could do quickly. She is giving her parents $1,100 a month from her salary.