Census shows a revival of pre-recession migration flows

Recently released census population estimates for the nation’s counties and metropolitan areas emphasize the re-emergence of earlier migration trends. That is, the sharp recession-related downturn in migration flows–from Snow Belt to Sun Belt, from large metros to small areas, and from urban cores to suburban enclaves—are back on the rise and perhaps will be for the foreseeable future. In addition, there is some evidence that long distance migration of young adult Millennials is finally picking up.

Clearly, the national slowdown of these migration flows, which started during the 2007-2009 recession, took an exceptionally long time to recover.  Each of them were in full force for the early years of the 2000s, propped up by dynamic Sun Belt economic growth as well as ample affordable housing in the suburbs and smaller communities.  But the late decade recession, coupled with the financial crisis and mortgage meltdown, put the brakes on these flows leading to commensurate population growth slowdowns in their destination areas.

The gradual revival, now evident for each of these flows, appears in three figures shown below.

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Figure 1 indicates that net movement from the Snow Belt (Northeast and Midwest regions) to the Sun Belt (South and West regions) has been increasing for three straight years. After a peak shift of 611,000 migrants from Snow Belt to Sun Belt states from 2004 to 2005, the annual volume plummeted to below 360,000 for most years between 2008 and 2013. However, the last three years have shown successive rises to 593,000 with states such as Florida, Washington and North Carolina displaying migration gains well above levels during the “down” recession and post-recession years.

Figure 2 shows the turnaround in migration between large metropolitan areas, with populations exceeding one half million, and the rest of the country — smaller metropolitan areas and non metropolitan territory. With only a few exceptions between 1990 and 2007, large metropolitan areas, as a group, lost migrants to smaller areas. This migration exchange flipped in 2008-2009 with changing economic conditions and remained to the former areas’ advantage through 2015-2016. However, over the past three years, large metropolitan annual migration gains were successively reduced from 118,000 to just 26,000.  During the same period, small metropolitan areas, as a group, experienced a net migration rise from 2,000 to 63,000 while non metropolitan counties sustained reduced out-migration from a low point in the 2010 to 2013 period. The migration shift to smaller areas has not completely turned around but it is strongly trending in that direction.

Figure 3 displays shifts between urban core and suburban counties within large metropolitan areas using a Brookings classification where urban core counties contain a metropolitan area’s principal city or highly dense inner suburb and suburban counties which are less dense counties including outer suburbs and exurbs.

As with the former trends, a noticeable shift occurred beginning in the recession years — with urban core counties “holding on” to potential out-migrants compared with the early 2000s. And the suburban counties — especially outer suburban and exurban counties — gained far fewer migrants than before as the housing crunch took hold. Yet, the last three years show trends in the opposite direction as out-migration from the urban core increased, as did migration gains in the suburbs. In fact, the outer-most exurban counties registered considerable gains, more than quadrupling in size since 2011-2012.

Together these complementary flows can have important impacts, both negative and positive, on different parts of the country. For example, the new trends increased migration declines for large Snow Belt metropolitan areas.  Thirty-six of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas are located in this region of which 28 registered net out migration in 2015-2016.   Led by New York (with 199,000 out-migrants) and Chicago (with 89,000), 22 of these 28 areas showed larger out-migration than in 2012-2013. The 64 large metropolitan areas in the Sun Belt, only 20  registered net out migration, dominated by Los Angeles (87,000). Link to table.

Perhaps the greatest contrast in migration trends can be made between core counties of large Snow Belt metropolitan areas and suburban counties in the Sun Belt as displayed in Figures 4 and 5.

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Figure 4 shows trends in domestic migration rates for core counties of selected Snow Belt metros:  Pittsburgh (Allegheny County), Milwaukee (Milwaukee County), Chicago (Cook County), and New York (Brooklyn borough). Each of these follows the reverse U-shaped pattern of initial out-migration which becomes moderated or shifted to migration gains during the recession, only to accelerate downward.

Countering these, in Figure 5, are domestic migration rates for outer suburban or low-density counties in Sun Belt metros: Tampa (Hernando County) Dallas (Kaufman County), Portland, Oregon (Columbia County) and Lakeland, Florida (Polk County). These counties display a U-shape pattern of high initial migration that becomes depressed during the late 2007-12 period and rises more recently.

Another trend promoting larger flows is a recent nationwide rise in long-distance migration rates for the young adult population, age 25-34. While Millennials are notorious for their low mobility, also related to a down economy and housing market, the newest CPS migration data for 2015-2016 shows a small uptick in inter-county movement for this group. (See Figure 6).  Though their shorter distance within-county migration still stands at historically low levels, this rise in longer distance movement among Millennials could power even bigger migration flows in the future.

Bill Frey Figure 6

Of course, the renewed migration flows revealed by the new census statistics are at levels lower than those observed just before the recession- when the economy was humming and the housing market was in over-drive.  But the uptick in these flows across different spatial dimensions and the suggestion that young adults may no longer be “stuck in place” leaves open the possibility that the nation could be on the cusp of even greater migration surges.  If that turns out to be the case, then more parts of the country need to brace for experiencing ever greater population gains or losses than has been the case for much of the last decade.