Watch How They Move

  • Ryan Streeter
  • Aug 18, 2011
  • News
  • Fiscal Policy
Watch How They Move

Originally published in the Indianapolis Star, August 17, 2011.

Americans are used to voting with their feet. You don't like it here? You can move over there. It's an old American tradition.

New research by demographers Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin offers counterintuitive insight into why Americans pick up and move where they do. Policymakers beware. Regardless of what we say we believe when we vote for political candidates, we Americans vote with our feet as if we're conservatives: We prefer low taxes, light regulation, school choice and jobs created by a robust free market.

For some time, elite theorists have predicted that empty-nester boomers would move to exciting urban centers. Developers financed plenty of downtown condos based on that theory -- a bad decision for some.

Why? Because, according to Cox and Kotkin, city centers have 12 percent fewer boomers today than a decade ago as the new retiring class heads for suburban enclaves around cities such as Las Vegas; Phoenix; Orlando, Fla.; Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C.; San Antonio and other Sun Belt destinations. This may not be the Woodstock generation you remember.

Boomers have settled in places that have less burdensome public bureaucracies, more affordable housing, less density and a good quality of life.

Cox and Kotkin studied people in their 20s and 30s. In the past decade, their ranks have grown 12 percent in the suburbs and declined 23 percent in urban centers. Like their boomer parents, they have moved to places such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Orlando, and so on.

As they advance in their careers, get married and look for a home, they choose lower-cost, low-tax areas with good schools around growing cities. Media types in New York and Hollywood and academics in Boston might deride Sun Belt regions as dull and monochrome, but young people are flocking there -- and away from New York, LA and Boston.

And when Cox and Kotkin studied cities whose 5- to 17-year-old populations grew the most, the list looked the same. The Sun Belt is awash in playgrounds and soccer fields.

What's going on? Why are young and old and everyone in between choosing bland Sun Belt enclaves over the bustling city centers in which movies are always set? As it turns out, when Americans are given a choice, they typically select regions of opportunity over elite addresses.

What do the fast-growing regions have in common? They make it easier to buy a home, start a business, choose a good school for your kids, and keep more of what you earn. Their public services live up to their name.

In terms of public policy these places generally have favorable tax climates, lighter regulation, better schooling options and attractive business environments. Right-to-work states and states with no income tax grew at a much faster pace than other states.

Polices matter more than location. One demographer has said that Indianapolis has "a profile closer to the Sun Belt than the Rust Belt" owing to a population growth rate 50 percent higher than the national average over the past decade. Sun, it turns out, is overrated.

People are leaving the coastal sun in California for the humidity of Houston because they like jobs and affordable homes instead of high taxes, onerous regulations and "public services" that serve government workers rather than the public.

Lawmakers, governors and policymakers would do well to take away the following from the Cox-Kotkin research:

Affordability matters more than "cool." Focus on cost-spiking housing regulations first, and hip urban bars later. Do both if you can, but get the order right.

Let job creators do their work. A good jobs environment in which new businesses are forming and companies are moving into town is directly related to the regulatory burden on them.

School choice isn't just a policy; it's another name for migration. Millions of Americans exercise school choice every year by moving to be near good schools. If urban planners want people to move back downtown, focus on schools before building more loft condos.

Most people are conservative, even if they vote as liberals. Gallup finds this year after year, and people's migration patterns reinforce this point. So, regardless of your political affiliation, appealing to people's conservative instincts is a recipe for growth.

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