What America’s Biggest Counties Have in Common

When Americans move, they generally stay within one region. But some of the most populated counties are attracting higher rates of new residents from far away.
by | November 2015
Las Vegas (David Kidd)

If people are willing to move long distances to an area, it’s a good sign that things there are going well.

New migration data published by the Internal Revenue Service, based on tax returns filed in 2013 and 2014, shows where Americans are moving to or from at the county level. We’ve identified the top migration flows occurring over more than 200 miles.

Nationally, domestic migration rates remain near historic lows, and when Americans do move, they generally stay within a metropolitan region. But some of the nation’s most populated counties attract large numbers of people from far away each year. For example, more than 9,800 people moved from Los Angeles County, Calif., to Clark County, Nev. (Las Vegas) -- the top year-over-year migration flow over a long distance -- while about 5,700 moved in the opposite direction.

As one would expect, areas of the Sun Belt welcome the most residents from far away. Travis County, Texas, where the thriving city of Austin is located, recorded by far the highest net domestic in-migration -- regardless of distance -- of any county nationally. About three-quarters of its new residents relocated from more than 200 miles away, with many coming from Chicago, Detroit and parts of Florida.

Determining which individuals are making such moves is key to understanding what may be taking place within a region. “If there’s a net long-distance migration of those with high incomes, it’s generally a sign of a vibrant economy,” says Mark Ellis, who researches internal migration at the University of Washington. On the other hand, if a large proportion of a given locality’s residents opt to move long distances away, it could signal a problem with the local labor market.

Overall domestic migration rates have been declining for decades. Research published by professor Thomas Cooke of the University of Connecticut shows that the recent economic downturn accounted for 63 percent of the decline between 1999 and 2009. While migration historically plummets during recessions and rebounds as the economy recovers, some additional factors may be at play this time around. In the past, a new job typically meant that an entire family would relocate. Ellis points out that this move isn’t as automatic now that more employees can work remotely thanks to the Internet and cheaper airfare. In addition, the economy is less tied to  manufacturing in much of the country, eliminating the incentive to move. Then there’s the aging of baby boomers, as older Americans tend to migrate at lower rates.

Some of the more recent indicators, however, suggest domestic migration may start to pick back up. Homeownership has fallen sharply in recent years and household sizes are getting smaller, both of which could result in greater mobility. A stronger economy could also go a long way in leading Americans to pack their bags and start new lives elsewhere.

2013-2014 Long Distance Migration Data

This table lists all migration flows where at least 1,000 people relocated more than 200 miles to a new county.

SOURCE: 2013-2014 IRS Migration Data

Data notes

Tax exemptions claimed are used to approximate numbers of people moving from one county to another. The approximate straight line distance between the center of counties was calculated for each migration flow. Moves occurring over a distance of at least 200 miles are shown in the table.

View complete migration data for all counties