Those of you who read Tim Noah’s important article in the November/December 2013 issue of the Washington Monthly will recall his argument that the gap between high housing costs and middle-class incomes is distorting what would otherwise be a market-driven migration of Americans to places with higher wages and more opportunity. The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson has more on the housing cost problem:

[T]he aversion to high rental costs is perhaps the most important driver of national migration. According to Atlas Van Lines’ annual survey of household moves, many dense, high-income states are bleeding people, while many poorer states with plentiful land continue to add families….

Americans aren’t simply moving to the states with the lowest unemployment (Oregon, Tennessee, and North Carolina all have jobless rates above the national average). More importantly, we aren’t moving to states with the best records for low-income families getting ahead. In fact, we’re often fleeing the best places for a upwardly mobile middle class.

According to Harvard’s Equality of Opportunity Project, the states with the most upwardly mobile cities include Pennsylvania (with five of the top 12 cities), New York and New Jersey (Albany, Newark, and New York are in the top 30). All three states are seeing net emigration, according to the Atlas map. Five of the 11 worst cities for poor children to move into the top quintile are in Tennessee and North Carolina—two of the few states to see more inbound moves in 2013.

This doesn’t make much sense if you envision American families rushing to the most promising metros. It does make sense if you see American families rushing to the most affordable homes.

Thompson blames “exclusionary zoning policies and housing regulations” in higher-wage cities for keeping housing prices out of sight for would-be upwardly mobile families. And thus the trap:

The sad irony is that density is a good predictor of upward mobility, but sunbelt cities with affordable housing often sprawl deep into the exurbs, where families aren’t anywhere near the best jobs. The very thing that makes those cities attractive places to get to also makes them bad places to get ahead.

Too bad the “smart growth” debates of the 1990s didn’t really sink in. Land use policies always have been and will continue to be both causes and potential solutions for economic inequality.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.