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Why the lack of labor mobility in the U.S. is a problem and how we can fix it

by Adam Millsap on January 26, 2017

in City Life, Economic Policy, New Research, Regulation, Unemployment

Many researchers have found evidence that mobility in the U.S. is declining. More specifically, it doesn’t appear that people move from places with weaker economies to places with stronger economies as consistently as they did in the past. Two sets of figures from a paper by Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag succinctly show this decline over time.

The first, shown below, has log income per capita by state on the x-axis for two different years, 1940 (left) and 1990 (right). On the vertical axis of each graph is the annual population growth rate by state for two periods, 1940 – 1960 (left) and 1990 – 2010 (right).

directed migration ganong, shoag

In the 1940 – 1960 period, the graph depicts a strong positive relationship: States with higher per capita incomes in 1940 experienced more population growth over the next 20 years than states with lower per capita incomes. This relationship disappears and actually reverses in the 1990 – 2010 period: States with higher per capita incomes actually grew slower on average. So in general people became less likely to move to states with higher incomes between the middle and end of the 20th century. Other researchers have also found that people are not moving to areas with better economies.

This had an effect on income convergence, as shown in the next set of figures. In the 1940 – 1960 period (left), states with higher per capita incomes experienced less income growth than states with lower per capita incomes, as shown by the negative relationship. This negative relationship existed in the 1990 – 2010 period as well, but it was much weaker.

income convergence ganong, shoag

We would expect income convergence when workers leave low income states for high income states, since that increases the labor supply in high-income states and pushes down wages. Meanwhile, the labor supply decreases in low-income states which increases wages. Overall, this leads to per capita incomes converging across states.

Why labor mobility matters

As law professor David Schleicher points out in a recent paper, the current lack of labor mobility can reduce the ability of the federal government to manage the U.S. economy. In the U.S. we have a common currency—every state uses the U.S. dollar. This means that if a state is hit by an economic shock, e.g. low energy prices harm Texas, Alaska and North Dakota but help other states, that state’s currency cannot adjust to cushion the blow.

For example, if the UK goes into a recession, the Bank of England can print more money so that the pound will depreciate relative to other currencies, making goods produced in the UK relatively cheap. This will decrease the UK’s imports and increase economic activity and exports, which will help it emerge from the recession. If the U.S. as a whole suffered a negative economic shock, a similar process would take place.

However, within a country this adjustment mechanism is unavailable: Texas can’t devalue its dollar relative to Ohio’s dollar. There is no within-country monetary policy that can help particular states or regions. Instead, the movement of capital and labor from weak areas to strong areas is the primary mechanism available for restoring full employment within the U.S. If capital and labor mobility are low it will take longer for the U.S. to recover from area-specific negative economic shocks.

State or area-specific economic shocks are more likely in large countries like the U.S. that have very diverse local economies. This makes labor and capital mobility more important in the U.S. than in smaller, less economically diverse countries such as Denmark or Switzerland, since those countries are less susceptible to area-specific economic shocks.

Why labor mobility is low

There is some consensus about policies that can increase labor mobility. Many people, including former President Barack Obama, my colleagues at the Mercatus Center and others, have pointed out that state occupational licensing makes it harder for workers in licensed professions to move across state borders. There is similar agreement that land-use regulations increase housing prices which makes it harder for people to move to areas with the strongest economies.

Reducing occupational licensing and land-use regulations would increase labor mobility, but actually doing these things is not easy. Occupational licensing and land-use regulations are controlled at the state and local level, so currently there is little that the federal government can do.

Moreover, as Mr. Schleicher points out in his paper, state and local governments created these regulations for a reason and it’s not clear that they have any incentive to change them. Like all politicians, state and local ones care about being re-elected and that means, at least to some extent, listening to their constituents. These residents usually value stability, so politicians who advocate too strongly for growth may find themselves out of office. Mr. Schleicher also notes that incumbent politicians often prefer a stable, immobile electorate because it means that the voters who elected them in the first place will be there next election cycle.

Occupational licensing and land-use regulations make it harder for people to enter thriving local economies, but other policies make it harder to leave areas with poor economies. Nearly 13% of Americans work for state and local governments and 92% of them have a defined-benefit pension plan. Defined-benefit plans have long vesting periods and benefits can be significantly smaller if employees split their career between multiple employers rather than remain at one employer. Thus over 10% of the workforce has a strong retirement-based incentive to stay where they are.

Eligibility standards for public benefits and their amounts also vary by state, and this discourages people who receive benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) from moving to states that may have a stronger economy but less benefits. Even when eligibility standards and benefits are similar, the paperwork and time burden of enrolling in a new state can discourage mobility.

The federal government subsidizes home ownership as well, and homeownership is correlated with less labor mobility over time. Place-based subsidies to declining cities also artificially support areas that should have less people. As long as state and federal governments subsidize government services in cities like Atlantic City and Detroit people will be less inclined to leave them. People-based subsidies that incentivize people to move to thriving areas are an alternative that is likely better for the taxpayer, the recipient and the country in the long run.

How to increase labor mobility

Since state and local governments are unlikely to directly address the impediments to labor mobility that they have created, Mr. Schleicher argues for more federal involvement. Some of his suggestions don’t interfere with local control, such as a federal clearinghouse for coordinated occupational-licensing rules across states. This is not a bad idea but I am not sure how effective it would be.

Other suggestions are more intrusive and range from complete federal preemption of state and local rules to federal grants that encourage more housing construction or suspension of the mortgage-interest deduction in places that restrict housing construction.

Local control is important due to the presence of local knowledge and the beneficial effects that arise from interjurisdictional competition, so I don’t support complete federal preemption of local rules. Economist William Fischel also thinks the mortgage interest deduction is largely responsible for excessive local land-use regulation, so eliminating it altogether or suspending it in places that don’t allow enough new housing seems like a good idea.

I also support more people-based subsidies that incentivize moving to areas with better economies and less place-based subsidies. These subsidies could target people living in specific places and the amounts could be based on the economic characteristics of the destination, with larger amounts given to people who are willing to move to areas with the most employment opportunities and/or highest wages.

Making it easier for people to retain any state-based government benefits across state lines would also help improve labor mobility. I support reforms that reduce the paperwork and time requirements for transferring benefits or for simply understanding what steps need to be taken to do so.

Several policy changes will need to occur before we can expect to see significant changes in labor mobility. There is broad agreement around some of them, such as occupational licensing and land-use regulation reform, but bringing them to fruition will take time. As for the less popular ideas, it will be interesting to see which, if any, are tried.

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