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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

On the Road Again? After Long-Term Decline, Interstate Migration May be Recovering

For the first time in decades, the number and share of Americans moving to another state may be rising. Moreover, as our new interactive tools show, the increases are due in large measure to the growing number of millennials and baby boomers who are moving from places like California and New York to places like Colorado, Washington, and Florida.

If these trends continue, they would represent a marked shift in domestic migration patterns within the United States. While the Great Recession brought new attention to the decline in residential migration, this decline began well before the latest economic downturn. The share of US residents moving between states has generally declined since we started measuring these trends in 1948, while the total number of such movers has fallen since the mid-1980s.

The three major data sources for residential mobility—the Current Population Survey (CPS), the American Community Survey (ACS), and the IRS Population Migration data (IRS)—all show notable drops in domestic migration during the Great Recession. After 2010, however, they diverge, with the ACS and IRS data showing an uptick in the number of interstate migrants while the CPS data show a stabilization after a long-term decline (Figure 1). The Census Bureau’s Population Estimates Program data on migration is limited to net migration flows, but it’s regional net flows corroborate these findings by showing some recover since the recession.

Figure 1. Interstate Migration May Be Recovering for the First Time in Decades (Interactive)

The ACS data show that the numerical uptick in interstate moves appears to be driven in particular by 25-34 year olds, 55-64 year olds, and those over 65. While some of this increase is due to the fact that these age groups encompass the nation’s two largest generational cohorts (millennials and baby boomers), some of the increase is driven by the fact that rates of migration have increased overall since 2010, though they declined slightly in 2016 (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Migration Trends are Stabilizing in All Age Groups (Interactive)

The CPS data, which generally show lower migration numbers and rates than the ACS and the IRS, indicate a stabilization in migration across the board for all age groups after 2010. However, even in the CPS there was noticeable growth in the number and rates of moves among younger people in 2016, particularly 25-34 year olds.

While the IRS data does not include age data before 2012, the post-2012 data offer insights into where people in different age groups leave and where they moved. As one of the new interactive tools shows, states that attracted individuals across age groups in 2016 include Arizona, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and South Carolina. States particularly attractive to younger people in 2016 include Colorado, Washington, Georgia, and Texas. Only a few states, notably Delaware and South Dakota, are attracting older individuals in particular (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Many States are Experiencing Age-Specific Trends in Migration (Interactive)

Moreover, as another interactive tool depicting gross migration flows by year and state shows, overall flows have changed dramatically in the last six years. Many states with positive in-migration in 2012, such as Florida, Arizona, and South Carolina, saw even greater in-migration in 2016. In contrast, several states – notably California, New York, and Massachusetts – that had negative flows in 2012 had even greater negative flows in 2016 (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Migration Flows Have Changed for Most States in the Past Six Years (Interactive)

While some trends – such as migration to Sunbelt states – are consistent with patterns over the last several decades, there are some notable changes in the flows as well. In the wake of declining oil prices, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, all of which have energy-production-based economies and all of which had been growing, saw net out-migration in 2016. In contrast, Utah was the only state that went from losing residents in 2012 to gaining them in 2016. Indeed, Utah was the fastest growing state in 2016, due in large part to their high birth rate and growing domestic and international immigration.

Looking forward, the question is whether the rise in interstate migration is a short-term change or a long-term fundamental shift that marks the end of the decades-long trend of declining mobility. If it is the latter, the changes could have important implications, from increased labor mobility to changes in housing demand, for the states that are gaining – or losing – residents overall.