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Americans are geographically more rooted today than in the past, says UC Berkeley sociologist
13 Dec 2000

By Patricia McBroom, Media Relations

Berkeley - We Americans see ourselves as a nation of strangers on the move, gazing back mistily to a time when we stayed put in one community and knew our neighbors.

But this image is almost exactly opposite the truth, according to Claude Fischer, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

The U.S. population is actually more settled, more rooted geographically, than it was in the 1950s or even in the 19th century, said Fischer in an analysis for UC Berkeley's Center for Working Families.

The only exception are service workers - a group including maids, guards, waiters and janitors - who today are experiencing more residential mobility than their counterparts 50 years ago, Fischer found. His paper is part of a larger project that he and UC Berkeley sociologist Michael Hout head called "USA: A Century of Difference," sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation. Both researchers are in UC Berkeley's sociology department, part of the College of Letters & Science.

In the last 50 years, and particularly over the past 150 years, "Americans have become more and more stable residentially," said Fischer. "This rootedness is true across a broad spectrum of the American population, including race, class, gender, age and family type. You have to search hard to find a group that bucks the trend."

By contrast, the 19th century was dominated by great migrations of people, not just across the nation, but from rural to urban areas. Fischer said that town records from that period show rates of movement much higher than anything in the 20th century except, perhaps, the Dust Bowl period.

"On the average, a 50 to 60 percent change in residents over ten year's time was not atypical of an American town or rural county in the 19th century. Economics was the driving force. Breadwinners died. Jobs shut down. Farms failed. Mines played out, and so on. People moved when their jobs changed," he said.

Because of modern transportation systems, people no longer have to move when their jobs change.

"We now have a huge radius in looking for jobs," said Fischer. "That may explain why we are more rooted. We can change jobs without changing homes, contrary to the case in the 19th century."

But if modern Americans are really more rooted than in the past, why don't we have urban villages? Why don't we seem to know our neighbors?

The answer to that question, Fischer believes, may be found in our own social choices - particularly our increasingly privatized lives and use of television - as well as in working patterns that leave neighborhoods nearly empty for most of the day.

"It's the same home, but no one is there during the day. Women are gone. Children are gone. Both partners are working more. The point is that you can still have disintegration of community along with stable residence," he said. Still, Fischer is skeptical of claims that American communities have, in fact, disintegrated.

The broad outlines of this story of American mobility have been known - and ignored - for decades. Fischer pointed out that over the past 50 years, since good records have been kept, the U.S. Census Bureau has recorded a steady decline in residential mobility. Yet, even social scientists continue to believe that modern life has raised mobility, uprooting families and creating anonymity.

"Our images of the past come from elite families, who lived in large houses in the same town year after year," said Fischer. "These are the people who wrote the biographies and owned the banks. What we don't see are the many people who came and went, who lived in ramshackle houses that no longer stand."

Fischer's analysis, based on annual population surveys done every March by the census bureau, reveals that the decline in mobility over the past 50 years can be traced strictly to a reduction in local movement, within counties. Longer-distance moves between counties or states has remained constant between 1947 and 1999.

Taken together, the findings trace a picture of American mobility that is driven by economic need among people with relatively low education and income, who move locally to keep ahead of a housing market that threatens to price them out.