Population movement is influenced by various factors such as economic opportunity, ecological disasters, war or personal ambition. In times of economic depression---whether local or global---migration patterns often shift under the incidence of social and economic stress related to rising unemployment, foreclosures, dislocation and resentment directed against migrant workers. In the U.S., economic downturn has always accounted for a dramatic shift in migratory patterns.
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By the 1920s, the shift from a primarily agrarian to an industrialized economy, as well as the emphasis on mass consumption, triggered an unprecedented rural-to-urban migratory wave in the U.S. Many Americans abandoned their farms and rural dwellings, attracted by the economic opportunities and the lifestyle that cities offered. Following the mechanization of cotton picking, African-Americans, previously employed mostly in the Southern agrarian economy, also moved in high numbers to the northern and western cities, looking for more lucrative opportunities. The U.S. industry continued to attract Mexican, South American, Asian and European unskilled workers.
Great Depression Migration
The Great Depression caused a shift in migratory patterns in the U.S. With unemployment figures surging, job opportunities became scarce and immigrant workers faced increasing hostility from citizens who blamed them for their own economic decline. Mexican-American farm workers moved into the southwestern cities, swelling the numbers of the unemployed and of those who collected welfare benefits. In the 1930s, many Hispanic immigrants were deported by the increasingly vigilant authorities, while others returned to their native land voluntarily. Migrant farm and industrial workers from other minority groups also faced increased hostility and were often forced to relocate or leave the country altogether.
African-American urbanization was also affected by the economic depression. In "The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People", Paul Boyer and his co-authors point out that "only 400,000 southern blacks moved to northern cities in the 1930s, far fewer than in the 1920s or the 1940s." In a time of fierce job competition, African-Americans faced as much discrimination as foreign workers.
The Depression temporarily reversed some of the U.S. migration patterns. While alien workers were deported or voluntarily returned to their countries, unemployed young people abandoned the cities, returning to their parents' farms. However, one trend that had begun in the previous centuries persisted: many Americans continued to move westward, looking for opportunities in California and other western states.
Contemporary Economic Migration
The end of the Great Depression and World War II ushered in a new migratory pattern: suburbanization. People started to move away from the manufacturing centers, toward the fringes of the metropolitan areas. The suburbanization wave continued until the early 2000s, when a new economic recession reversed the trend. Between 2007 and 2010, young people started to move back to the cities, in search of job opportunities.
Many Americans approaching retirement age also reexamined their plans. A March 2010 Population Reference Bureau Report asserts that the "loss of wealth associated with the drop in home values and stock market declines has kept many [baby] boomers attached to major metropolitan areas where most of the good jobs are located."
While America has been experiencing a new wave of urbanization and population decrease in retirement destinations, the global recession has forced unemployed migrant workers from less developed countries to return to their native lands. The exodus of migrant workers has affected the global distribution of income, as well as the unemployment figures in less developed countries, paradoxically contributing to the deepening of the global recession.
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- "The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People"; Paul S. Boyer, Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Sandra McNair Hawley, Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, Nancy Woloch; 2002
- "Places and Regions in Global Context"; Paul L. Knox, Sallie A. Marston; 2003