Moving has always been at the center of achieving the American Dream: immigrants arriving on U.S. shores in search of opportunity; African Americans fleeing southern violence and seeking better paying jobs in the industrial north; white workers moving West for land and prosperity. Now, thanks to sometimes-vast cost disparities across the country, Americans' quality of life depends perhaps as much as ever on where they live. Relocating from an expensive zip code to a more affordable one is often the best — and sometimes only — avenue for families seeking a middle-class life.
"We've reached a point where it may not make sense to talk about a single American economy or to talk about opportunity in general," says Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution. "The American Dream looks very different in one place to the next."
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Social scientists often measure class with variables such as income, occupation and education. But when someone moves from one region to another, those variables can carry vastly different weight.
New York is among the three least affordable home buyer markets for people in Egan and Dibner's age group, along with Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to analysis by the website RealtyTrac. The average price of a home in Brooklyn, where they lived, is well over half a million dollars. In Baltimore, the average home price is under $200,000.
Cost of living comparisons generally show that it's about one third less expensive to live in Baltimore than New York. Down to the cost of a dentist appointment, the couple's new home is cheaper than New York. According to calculations by the Council for Community and Economic Research, a dentist visit is $32 cheaper in Baltimore than Brooklyn. They save $0.45 on a box of Kleenex and about $1.25 on a six-pack of beer.
"It's a totally different world when it comes to what it costs to live happily here," Egan, who earns approximately the same amount in Baltimore as she would in a similar job in New York. Her new city promised a proximity to the kinds of urban energy she loved about New York at a price they could manage. The home the couple bought was valued at just over $200,000, a fraction the price of similar property in New York.
Housing costs are most families' biggest expenditure. The cost of keeping a roof over a family's head is also the single biggest reason that Americans find themselves priced out of the places they live.
Because moving from one city to another requires having a level of economic stability, in economic hard times, rates of migration tend to decline. During the recession and its immediate aftermath, Americans largely stayed in one place and waited out the economic storm. New data suggests that compared to the pre-recession years, economic anxieties may still be holding many young Americans from venturing out. But even as the overall shifts of population have slowed, the stark disparities in costs between regions remain a steady feature of the American economy landscape.