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The Geography of Aspiration

Migration analysis places too much emphasis on push factors and not enough on the pull of opportunity.
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(Photo: LC_24/Flickr)

(Photo: LC_24/Flickr)

Why do people migrate? The refugee model champions the force of push: Move away from catastrophe. The economic model of migration champions the force of pull: Move to opportunity. Most policy analysts tell refugee tales. Make a place better and residents will never leave. Alternatively, some scholars view migration as a form of economic development. We move to improve, not escape. Modeling the decline of geographic mobility in the United States (which may or may not be happening) in terms of push, a policy solution:

Our history is full of policies aimed at supporting people as they get up and move to pursue opportunity. Unfortunately, our modern economic safety net has side effects, like diminishing one of our strongest national economic assets: high labor mobility. By adopting some form of pro-migration unemployment benefit program, this perverse effect could be partially reversed. Unemployed people should be empowered to seek opportunities for work wherever it can be found, not subsidized to stay in towns left behind by the new economy.

Indeed, relative to the rest of the world, Americans are footloose within the country. I would also agree with the assertion that the higher rates of migration benefit the labor market and the national economy. I disagree with the characterization of the problem as a lack of push thanks to government assistance.

What if the pull (i.e. "opportunity") was historically weaker instead of the incentive to leave? Both versions of events are plausible. Unemployment may be lower elsewhere. But the types of jobs available might not justify a long-distance relocation to a place where no one knows your name.

Michael Amior of the London School of Economics pursues the pull line of inquiry into the geographic mobility problem, "Why Are Higher Skilled Workers More Mobile Geographically? The Role of the Job Surplus." The quality of the opportunity drives migration. Low skill labor lacks high enough quality opportunities to justify a move:

In new research, I argue that the obstacles to low skilled mobility are exactly those which sustain high levels of low skilled joblessness: meagre returns to employment, for both workers and firms. These meagre returns have a particularly debilitating effect on long-distance job finding: job offers are usually insufficient to justify the cost of moving.

This effect is reinforced by the search behavior of both firms and workers. Since low skilled employees bring little value to firms, firms have less of an incentive to create such jobs. And they also spend comparatively less on job advertising – particularly at longer distances. And for similar reasons, lower skilled workers apply for fewer jobs, and especially in other towns.

Underlying the analysis, people with more education are more likely to move. That's a problem for the push school of thought. Unemployment benefits don't discriminate between skill levels. Everyone should stay put, regardless of degree obtained. Job opportunities do, of course, discriminate between skill levels. Via push factors, we can't explain the variance in geographic mobility. Via pull factors, we can. Personal aspiration, not place, determines where we go and if we go at all. When in doubt, reach for the pull explanation.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.