After Years of Explosive Growth, Migration to the West and the South Slows

New places are emerging as destinations for people on the move.
by | April 18, 2019 AT 11:46 AM
Migration to Alameda County, Calif., which includes the city of Oakland, has slowed almost to a halt. (Shutterstock)

As the San Francisco Bay area exploded earlier this decade, Alameda County gained a lot of new people. The county, which includes Oakland, welcomed more than 15,000 new residents annually for several years.

But Alameda's growth has slowed down significantly. Last year, it only added a few hundred new residents from other parts of the country and abroad. A similar trend is happening in several other areas in the West and in the Sun Belt.

New Census Bureau estimates released Thursday depict a slowdown in migration to many parts of the country that had previously been booming. Counties in states like Florida and Texas continue to grow considerably, but not at quite the same pace. The new figures also show strong migration gains for several counties outside the usual growth regions of the coasts and the Sun Belt.

In the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, few Americans moved long distances for new jobs or for retirement. That all started to change around 2011. As the economy rebounded, more people began to relocate, especially to parts of the South and the West.

But the exponential growth in migration now finally appears to be subsiding. The latest Census estimates show less impressive gains for the second consecutive year.

Much of the Sun Belt isn’t as booming as it once was. By Governing calculations of Census data, the region gained about 125,000 fewer new residents last year than when migration peaked in 2015 and 2016.

 

SOURCE: Governing calculations of Census population estimates. (See definitions.)

Consider Texas. The state gained about 83,000 residents from other parts of the country in each of the past two years -- a number that has dropped by half since 2015.

One place the dropoff is particularly evident is Harris County, which includes Houston. Total net migration into Harris County has actually turned negative in the past two years.

Similarly, Dallas County lost more residents from migration than it gained for the first time in years. In addition to fewer residents moving in, it's also a result of a broader trend of Americans relocating to suburbs. As in Harris County, Dallas County's total population is only still climbing because of births and international migration.

Other larger Sun Belt counties where migration has significantly tapered off include Cobb County, Ga., outside of Atlanta, and Nashville’s Davidson County in Tennessee.

Migration has slowed in Florida, too, although it’s generally holding up better than elsewhere. Still, the approximately 133,000 new Floridians from other parts of the country in 2018 represented the lowest annual tally since 2013.

Richard Doty, a demographer for the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida, says one reason for the drop is that much of the prior growth reflected a pent-up demand from retirees in the Northeast.

“In 2011 or 2012, you might have wanted to come down, but if your house in New York wasn’t getting what it was worth, you may have been sitting on it and waiting,” he says.

The story is similar out West. Fewer Americans relocated to Western states last year, and when combined with lower international migration, the totals dropped well below their recent peak.

 

SOURCE: Governing calculations of Census population estimates. (See definitions.)

In California, several major counties are now experiencing net migration losses after years of strong gains, including Orange County, Santa Clara County and San Diego County. The Bay Area is experiencing a particularly dramatic slowdown, thanks in part to its extremely tight housing market. The San Francisco-Oakland metro area’s total migration came to a near halt after adding about 40,000 residents a year through 2015.

Migration to Multnomah County, Ore., which includes Portland, similarly fell to near zero after several years of strong growth.

 

Large Counties Where Migration Has Reversed or Slowed

County 2012-16 Average 2018 Net Difference
Orange County, Calif. 5,061 -9,818 -14,879
San Diego County, Calif. 11,465 -524 -11,989
San Mateo County, Calif. 3,631 -2,701 -6,332
Dallas County, Texas 12,927 -8,029 -20,956
Santa Clara County, Calif. 9,736 -6,752 -16,488
Davidson County, Tenn. 5,335 -663 -5,998
Cobb County, Ga. 4,975 -543 -5,518
Alameda County, Calif. 13,963 682 -13,281
San Francisco County, Calif. 7,988 1,865 -6,123
Multnomah County, Ore. 6,918 330 -6,588
Contra Costa County, Calif. 9,507 1,852 -7,655
Orleans Parish, La. 4,405 -1,442 -5,847
Harris County, Texas 44,353 -7,717 -52,070
Gwinnett County, Ga. 8,898 2,750 -6,148
Charleston County, S.C. 5,867 2,833 -3,034

Figures refer to total domestic and international migration for select Sun Belt and Western counties.
SOURCE: Governing calculations of Census estimates

A number of factors may explain the slowdown.

In the urban counties, it’s generally domestic migration, rather than migration from abroad, that’s taken a hit. Brookings Institution demographer William Frey says jobs are moving away from the coasts and other areas offer more affordable housing costs.

“The economy is easing up and people are more willing to look at other opportunities, taking into account both the cost of living and the opportunity for employment,” he says.

A number of counties outside the Sun Belt and Western U.S. are enjoying steady migration gains despite generally weak growth or losses in their regions. Sussex County, Del., added an estimated 5,500 residents from migration in 2018 -- the most in at least a decade. And the only county in the entire northeastern U.S. that gained more than 2,000 residents from other parts of the country last year was Ocean County, N.J. (Many places added thousands of residents via international migration, though.)

Several localities in the middle of the country similarly stood out. The Indianapolis suburb of Hamilton County added more than 5,000 residents. Suburban Delaware County, Ohio, and rural Dallas County, Iowa, also recorded high migration rates.

The following counties outside the Sun Belt and the West Coast were outliers with high migration rates:

 
County 2018 Migration Rate per 1K Pop.
Loudoun County, Va. 6,105 15
Sussex County, Del. 5,526 24
Hamilton County, Ind. 5,008 15
Ocean County, N.J. 4,930 8
Chesterfield County, Va. 4,024 12
Frederick County, Md. 3,706 14
Canadian County, Okla. 3,646 25
Delaware County, Ohio 3,401 17
Bristol County, Mass. 3,329 6
Warren County, Ohio 2,846 12
Hendricks County, Ind. 2,614 16
Clay County, Mo. 2,587 11
Washington County, Minn. 2,408 9
Stafford County, Va. 2,225 15
Dallas County, Iowa 2,150 24

Figures refer to total annual domestic and international migration.
SOURCE: Governing calculations of 2018 Census estimates

To be certain, the Sun Belt and the West still account for the vast majority of the population growth from domestic migration. The Dallas and Phoenix metro areas both recorded net migration gains exceeding 70,000 last year -- more than any area nationally. The Atlanta, Orlando and Tampa metro areas also continued to add considerable numbers of residents from other parts of the country in 2018, although their totals were down from prior years.

And counter to national trends, a few smaller areas of the Sun Belt are still adding residents at increasing rates, such as the Lakeland-Winter Haven, Fla., and Tucson, Ariz., metros. Migration also has yet to subside in much of Idaho, Nevada and Utah.

“There’s a new deconcentrated movement to smaller areas and places that you wouldn’t normally think as the big Sun Belt hotspots,” Frey says.

 

View updated migration data and rates for all counties.

 

About the Data

Migration totals comprise domestic migration from other parts of the U.S. and international migration. Figures referenced don't reflect other population changes, such as births and deaths. The Sun Belt was defined to include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Note that parts of some of these states are often not considered the Sun Belt. The Western region included Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.