The Great American Migration Slowdown: Regional and Metropolitan Dimensions

William H. Frey

Mired in housing debt and struggling through the Great Recession, more Americans are choosing to stay put rather than uproot themselves and their families. In a new report, William Frey uses Census and IRS data to analyze recent migration trends across the United States showing significant shifts in how frequently, and to where, Americans are moving.

Analysis of U.S. domestic and international migration patterns through 2008–2009 reveals that:

  • In 2007-2008, the overall U.S. migration rate reached its lowest point since World War
    II. The slowdown was especially pronounced for long-distance moves, which remained flat
    through 2008–2009, as well as for single people and renters. Both long-distance and shortdistance
    movers were less likely to cite housing reasons for their moves.
  • From 2007 to 2008, 23 states, mostly in the Intermountain West and Southeast, showed
    reduced in-migration or a switch from in- to out-migration. Thirteen states, mostly on the
    coasts, showed lower levels of out-migration. The migration fortunes of three Sun Belt states—
    Florida, Texas, and California—showed distinctly different loss and gain patterns in various
    population groups.
  • The metro areas that experienced the greatest recent migration declines were those that
    reaped the most migrants during the mid-decade housing bubble. On the other hand, outmigration
    areas in northern states and along the coasts have bucked their long-term trend,
    retaining residents.

  • Migration to exurban and newer suburban counties dropped substantially, while it brought
    about unexpected “windfall” gains in many large urban cores. Large urban areas such as
    Boston, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia saw net out-migration shrink significantly from
    2005 to 2008, and San Francisco actually posted a net migration gain after registering annual
    losses throughout the decade.
  • Although international migration to the U.S. has also declined, it continued to offset
    losses from domestic migration in many large metropolitan immigrant gateways throughout
    the decade. In Chicago, Miami, and Washington, D.C., gains from immigration more than
    offset net domestic migration losses in 2007–2008, while Houston, Dallas, and San Francisco
    gained from both types of migration.

The recent migration slowdown was the surprising, but in retrospect inevitable, by-product of
an unprecedented run-up in both housing values and housing-related debt. The credit crisis and
Great Recession that followed left Americans flat-footed, as would-be movers were unable to
find financing to buy a new home, buyers for their existing homes, or a new job in more desirable
areas. When the housing market finally clears, and recovery is well underway, both Sun Belt and
Snow Belt areas with diversified, new economy industries could find themselves at the leading
edge of the next migration boom.