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The Radius of Economic Opportunity: Evidence from Migration and Local Labor Markets

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Working Paper Number CES-22-27

Abstract

We examine the geographic incidence of local labor market growth across locations of childhood residence. We ask: when wages grow in a given US labor market, do the benefits flow to individuals growing up in nearby or distant locations? We begin by constructing new statistics on migration rates across labor markets between childhood and young adulthood. This migration matrix shows 80% of young adults migrate less than 100 miles from where they grew up. 90% migrate less than 500 miles. Migration distances are shorter for Black and Hispanic individuals and for those from low-income families. These migration patterns provide information on the first order geographic incidence of local wage growth. Next, we explore the responsiveness of location choices to economic shocks. Using geographic variation induced by the recovery from the Great Recession, we estimate the elasticity of migration with respect to increases in local labor market wage growth. We develop and implement a novel test for validating whether our identifying wage variation is driven by changes in labor market opportunities rather than changes in worker composition due to sorting. We find that higher wages lead to increased in-migration, decreased out-migration and a partial capitalization of wage increases into local prices. Our results imply that for a 2 rank point increase in annual wages (approximately $1600) in a given commuting zone (CZ), approximately 99% of wage gains flow to those who would have resided in the CZ in the absence of the wage change. The geographically concentrated nature of most migration and the small magnitude of these migration elasticities suggest that the incidence of labor market conditions across childhood residences is highly local. For many individuals, the “radius of economic opportunity” is quite narrow.

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