Americans Helping Americans Abroad

A new study, "Modeling American Migration Aspirations," by Drs. Helen B. Marrow (Tufts University) and Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels (University of Kent at Brussels) surveyed Americans in the United States and asked them about their aspirations for leaving the United States to live abroad. The data reveal interesting patterns not only about why Americans might wish to go abroad, but who is more likely to want to go and where they would prefer to live.

“Why did you leave the US?” is a familiar question for Americans abroad. A question that is not easy to answer because it requires them to cast their minds back over years, sometimes decades, to remember their motivations for leaving the United States.

A new study sought to understand the feelings and aspirations about living abroad of Americans in the United States prior to expatriation. That makes this study, Modeling American Migration Aspirations, unique, says Klekowski von Koppenfels: it is the first to look at Americans at home before they leave to work, marry, retire, or study abroad.

Using a representative sample of 877 adult US-born citizens, they measured participants’ political, social, and financial capital, asked questions about gender, race, and national identity, and whether they would consider leaving the US at some point in their lives.

A Large Minority Would Consider Living Abroad

A third of Americans in the study said that they would consider living abroad. However, that third included participants who had a desire to move, but who did not think it was a realistic option for them (14.9%). Less than six per cent had a strong desire to move or had plans to leave. And 58% indicated that they had no desire to leave the United States.

“Only 20% is realistically considering moving abroad,” says Klekowski von Koppenfels. “But even so, that’s still one-fifth of the US population we’re talking about.”

Networks and National Identity

Study participants were asked whether their attachment to the US was strong, medium, or weak. “Those who answered medium or weak American identity were more likely to think about moving abroad,” said Klekowski von Koppenfels.

“Having a network also matters,” she said. The study shows that Americans in the US learn about life abroad directly from Americans abroad (including US military personnel) and though the Internet, news reports, and social media.

Why Would They leave?

The survey participants who wanted to live abroad were given a list of possible motivations to leave the US and asked to choose the top three that most closely matched their feelings.

To explore was, by far, the most common motivation: 87.4% of participants selected this as one of their primary reasons to go abroad.

The second most common responses were to work, to leave and to retire. However, the stronger the sense of American identity, the more likely the participants were to rank to study and less likely to rank to leave as a motivator.

Over half selected to leave what I consider a bad or disappointing (economic, political, personal, healthcare, etc.) situation in the United States.

To study or to to join a partner were also important motivations for 33% and 19.4%, respectively. Women were twice as likely to rank join a partner than men.

Where Would They Like to Go?

In response to the question, “What country or region of the world are you most interested in living in, at least right now?” over 50 percent of potential American expatriates preferred Western Europe, Australia, or New Zealand. Central and South America (excluding Mexico) or the Carribean came in second at 19.5 percent. All other countries, including Canada and Mexico, had less than 10 percent.

American men were 2.8 times more likely to choose Canada. But when national identity was strong, potential migrants were 2.9% less likely to prefer the US’s northern neighbor. “If they are non-Hispanic white, they are 1.8 times more likely to prefer Western Europe, Australia, or New Zealand but 2.39 times less likely to prefer Latin America,” the study says.

A Disconnect between Aspirations and the US Population Overseas

Aspiration is not behaviour. The geographic preferences in the study do not correlate with where Americans abroad settle outside the United States. Mexico and Canada, for example, which ranked low in terms of preference are both countries that have large numbers of American citizens.

The low ranking of join a partner is also surprising given that marriage/civil unions are a very common reason for American to migrate. “Marriage doesn’t show up in the survey results,” says Klekowski von Koppenfels, “Which suggests that something is happening between thinking about migration and actually migrating.”

Marrow and Klekowski von Koppenfel's study is an important contribution to a growing body of work on American emigration/expatriation. The full author accepted manuscript can be downloaded here.

This article is contributed by Victoria Ferauge