The Costs of “Moving On”

In his recent New York Times op-ed, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks says declining mobility is a primary cause of the nation’s economic malaise. Among his suggestions, he writes that “we should reform place-based welfare programs to reduce the incentive to stay put. The social safety net should be designed to promote mobility and earned success, not to anchor people within struggling communities.” But in his simplistic paean to mobility he fails to acknowledge the devastating consequences often accompanying relocation.

Students who change schools underperform relative to similar classmates in similar schools whose school situation is more stable. Urban renewal and its progeny (e.g. many Hope VI projects) resulted in forced displacement undermining institutional connections, personal relationships, and other forms of social capital that nurtured prosperity in middle income minority neighborhoods and survival in poor ones. Gentrification perpetuates forced displacement and its many costs. In her book, Root Shock, Mindy Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University observes that such displacement “destroys social, emotional, and financial resources and increases the risk for every kind of stress-related disease, from depression to heart attack.”

For those who want to move, particularly from high poverty to high opportunity neighborhoods, public policy and private practice should encourage such relocations. But those who want to stay put should have that option as well.

(Photo credit: Carl Wycoff, via flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Gregory D. Squires is a professor of sociology and public policy and public administration at George Washington University. He previously served on the board of the National Housing Institute, publisher of Shelterforce.


  1. Mindy Fullilove is right. It’s about time somebody says the truth. Mobility has become a panacea that says everything just to keep things (and people) underway, to sprawl the city of flows: The city of segregation, affected by the irrational displacement of people and merchandise and its speed and violence – the city bound to the environmental catastrophe.
    Civilization is bound to the place and man in relation with it.

  2. As I read Brooks’ piece, he was talking primarily, if not entirely, about interstate or inter metro moves, i.e. from Rust Belt to Sun Belt. This should not be conflated with “mobility” within metro areas, as I believe this post does.

    He was also talking about lowering barriers that prevent people from choosing to move, not involuntary displacement and relocation. Again, the post conflates voluntary mobility with forced displacement, probably to make a rhetorical point…

    There is certainly a substantial and growing body of evidence that voluntary mobility moves’ out of high poverty areas with high rates of crime to safer neighborhoods within the same metro are beneficial for children. This is especially true if families are able to move to opportunity areas with the help of mobility counseling programs. Since they continue to live in the same metro as family and friends, most people will maintain ties with networks of family and friends.

    What is disastrous for children is moving within in, or moving to, distressed areas.

    I don’t know that there is clear evidence on whether in today’s context voluntary moves to another part of the country are per se “disastrous.” The research by Chetty and Hendren suggests the opposite.

    It should be noted that Americans have been doing just that for our entire history, believing they could find better opportunities beyond their home towns.

  3. Brooks does focus his piece on interstate and inter metro moves and that is what I responded to. I did NOT conflate this with mobility within metro areas as Barbara Samuels states. And I did not conflate voluntary mobility with forced displacement. As I concluded, “For those who want to move, particularly from high poverty to high opportunity neighborhoods, public policy and private practice should encourage such relocations.” As for implications of Chetty’s research regarding moves to another part of the country, it depends on where the family is moving from and where it is moving to.


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