More Americans are moving, mostly to Sun Belt suburbs

A decade after the worst recession in modern history froze many Americans in place, the number of people with enough economic security to move is starting to rise once again, according to new population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Those estimates show more Americans are moving from Rust Belt and Northeastern cities, including some of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, in favor of booming cities and suburbs across the Sun Belt and the West Coast.

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“The economy has gotten better. People are not hunkering down anymore, especially young millennials who were put in a vice in the beginning of this decade,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

And after years of decline, rural America is starting to reap the benefits of a more mobile population. The number of Americans who live in nonmetropolitan, or rural, areas grew by about 37,000 residents in the last year — a relatively small increase, but one that represents a sea change from years just after the recession when so many people moved out of rural communities in favor of larger cities.

Ken Johnson, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy, said the increase in rural America came in two types of communities: those that are adjacent to larger cities, and those that have become hubs for outdoor recreation.

“Some of this may be sprawl, but there are also a significant number of people and businesses who prefer to live in rural areas, but close enough metro areas to take advantage of the proximity of [a] metro economy and services,” Johnson said.

The Census Bureau figures show Texas continues to grow at a breakneck pace. Four of the 10 counties that have grown the fastest since 2010 are in Texas. Three of those counties sit between San Antonio and Austin, and the fourth, Fort Bend, incorporates the southwest Houston suburbs.

Together, those four counties have added more than 320,000 residents, an increase of about 36 percent over their 2010 population levels.

Texas’s four largest counties are all among the 10 counties that have added the most new residents in the past eight years. Counties that include Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio have added a collective 1.4 million new residents since the beginning of the decade — enough to fill two entire congressional districts.

The Dallas and Houston metro areas have each attracted more than a million new residents since the decade began. Phoenix, Atlanta, Miami and the Washington region all brought in more than 600,000 new residents.

Nine of the 10 counties that added the largest number of residents are in Sun Belt states like Texas, Arizona, California, Nevada and Florida; the 10th is home of Seattle, where a tech boom is fueling mammoth new growth. Seattle, the seventh fastest growing metro area in the country, added almost half a million new residents since 2010.

Eight of the 10 fastest-growing counties are in Sun Belt states; the exceptions are in the Des Moines suburbs in Iowa and in Williams County, N.D., where a fracking boom attracted more than 13,000 new residents over the decade.

Increasing economic mobility is reviving a trend that was accelerating before the recession hit the brakes on movement: Growth in some of the largest cities in the country has begun to plateau, or even slow. The three largest metropolitan areas in the country — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — all lost residents between 2017 and 2018.

In New York, boroughs like Queens and Brooklyn have led the decline, Frey said, an indication that younger Americans are the ones who are becoming more mobile. At the same time, immigrants from other countries who once chose big cities like New York and Los Angeles are now opting for places like the Houston and Dallas suburbs instead.

“The first half of this decade, we saw something very unusual: Cities were growing faster than suburbs, probably for the first time since the invention of the car,” Frey said. “Domestic migration is disbursing.”

The recession also reduced the birth rate across the country, as parents held off on having children until their economic prospects rebounded. The birth rate has not yet recovered; it is still about 10 percent below its pre-recession levels. That, coupled with increased mobility among those looking for better living conditions and lower housing prices, has driven some of the drop in mega-city populations.

“The recession froze people in place, causing places like big urban cores to lose fewer domestic migrants,” Johnson said. “As the impact of the recession has diminished in the last couple years, domestic migration out of these big core counties has accelerated again.”