Americans move less, but those doing so are leaving urban centers

Americans move less, but those doing so are leaving urban centers
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Fewer Americans are moving than at any point in more than 70 years, but those who are moving are abandoning major urban centers at the fastest pace in two decades as they relocate to the suburbs.

A new report from the U.S. Census Bureau found about 29.8 million people, or about 9.3 percent of the nation’s population, moved homes in 2019. That is the lowest figure the Bureau recorded since it began collecting moving data in 1948.

Those who did move tended to land in suburban areas, at the expense of both the major cities at the heart of those suburbs and the rural areas that surround them.

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An estimated 2.6 million Americans moved into major cities in 2019, compared with almost 5.1 million who left, a net outward migration flow of 2.5 million people. Cities attracted almost half a million migrants from abroad, but that still means major American cities lost a net of 2 million people in the last year.

A net of almost 3 million people, including close to 400,000 international immigrants, moved to the suburbs. Close to 100,000 people moved from nonmetropolitan rural areas to either the cities or the suburbs, the Census Bureau reported.

“All the domestic migration gains are coming in the suburbs,” said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the Carsey School at the University of New Hampshire. “The principal cities continue to lose substantial numbers of domestic migrants and movers from abroad are not sufficient to offset these domestic migration losses.”

Population flows out of big cities and into suburban areas is a long-term trend, one that has erased the dated vision of lily-white suburbs inhabited by homogenous communities. Today’s suburbs are even more diverse than the country as a whole, Census figures show. 

But net migration away from cities happened at a faster pace last year — before the coronavirus pandemic struck — than in recent years. The net outflow of 2 million residents was the largest exodus since the late 1990s.

The largest segment of those who moved over the last year did so in search of better housing. About a third of those who moved said they wanted to own a home rather than rent, wanted a newer or larger space or sought out a better neighborhood or cheaper housing. 

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About a quarter moved for family-related reasons, and one in five said they moved for employment-related causes, including those who were taking a new job, those who were moving closer to work for an easier commute or those who retired.

The Census Bureau has not yet released state-by-state migration data, but regional data shows more Americans moving to Southern states than any other part of the country. Almost a million people moved to the South in the last year, while about 625,000 moved away from the South. It was the only region in America with a net-positive migration flow.

Both Northeastern states and Western states each lost a net of just over 150,000 Americans, and the Midwest shed about 54,000 people. But all four regions showed a net increase in their population after accounting for migrants from abroad.

Fewer than 2 million immigrants from other nations moved to the United States in 2019, the lowest figure since the Great Recession a decade ago.

The migration figures offer an early preview of the coming reapportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives that will take place after the Census Bureau formally delivers its counts to Congress early next year. Earlier estimates suggested that seven states are on track to add to their congressional delegations, while 10 states are likely to lose seats.

The South is set to add at least six seats across three states — three in Texas, two in Florida and one in North Carolina, according to estimates from the demographer Kimball Brace. One southern state, Alabama, is likely to lose a seat.

Western and Mountain West states will add a net gain of three seats, as Arizona, Colorado, Montana and Oregon all boost their delegations and California, for the first time since it became a state, sheds a seat.

But the Northeast and the Midwestern Rust Belt continue to be the biggest losers in the decennial redistricting game. New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Rhode Island are all likely to lose a seat this year. Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio are also likely to miss out.