In the past three years, the ability and willingness of Americans to move across town or to another state have fallen to their lowest level in more than half a century.
An NPR/Kaiser Family Foundation survey examined mobility among the long-term unemployed and underemployed. Of those two groups combined, 40 percent said they would be willing to move to another state to find a job.
Brek Lawson is among them. He was student body president at his well-regarded liberal arts college, and after graduating in 1990, he anticipated becoming part of the well-paid middle class. But over the past decade and a series of jobs and attempts to start his own business, nothing has quite worked out. He now finds himself saddled with debt and no job in sight.
"I've got a decent home. My wife is supporting us. I'm grateful for what I have," he says. "But ... when it comes to finding a job that I could support my family [with], I feel — I don't know, it's not cornered, it's not hopeless — it's just, I want more. I want a way out."
'You Say Yes To Any Shift, Any Time'
So Lawson is considering a pretty radical step: moving from the Seattle suburbs to North Dakota. That state is in the midst of an energy boom and has the nation's lowest unemployment rate.
Lawson — who participated in the NPR/Kaiser survey — knows the checkered work history on his resume is problematic. But he thinks he'll have better luck in a place where there are more job openings, and where the bar to getting hired may be lower.
"You show up at the door, you get past the resume, and you're there, you're ready to work, you've sacrificed by leaving family behind, you [say] yes to any shift, to any time, to any pay and work — within reason — and I feel like in that situation, I'll shine," he says.
The 44-year-old would like to work in marketing, supply chain management or some kind of accounting. He sees this as a way to get back on track, but it won't be easy. He would be away from his family and very likely living in a trailer with someone else who needed a job.
"The fact that these folks are willing to make these kinds of compromises tells you the kind of situation we are in," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.
He suggests that this sort of thing wouldn't be happening as much in a normal economic climate.
"What really keeps people stable are these social and family relationships. [By] picking up and moving you're changing your whole world," Frey says. "It's not just that you're changing a job: You're ... changing your whole manner of existence."
The Problem Of Uprooting Families
While a sizable number of individuals in the NPR/Kaiser survey said they would make a long-distance move to find a job, for many, moving is not an option.
Micki De Los Rayes, for example, is among the ranks of the long-term underemployed. A paraprofessional educator in a school district in central Washington state, her hours have been cut from about 30 a week to just over 20.
"I've been really lucky," she says. "I could have lost my job. But it's been ugly, and it's scary."
De Los Rayes is a single mother in her 50s raising five children. They're not her biological kids, but kids who needed a home. Some of them have special needs, so moving would be extremely difficult.
"The resources that I have in this community for my kids are really important," she says. "[The] medical care here is wonderful; I wouldn't want to interrupt that."
In addition, De Los Rayes lives with her daughter and son-in-law, who help care for the kids, so if she moved, they'd all have to move.
Others don't move because they can't find jobs anywhere, or they're living rent-free with family members or they can't sell their home.
In addition to a question about moving, individuals who have been unemployed or underemployed for more than a year were asked what other steps they might take to find a job. About 80 percent said they would work night and weekend shifts. Slightly more said they would take an entry-level job in a new field.