Recession slammed domestic migration

by Rebecca Wilder

Earlier this year, I compared US migration with that in Canada – one healthy, the other not so much. As a sequel to the story, the Census released its figures for migration into 2009, and the pattern in the US has worsened (you can download the here).

The picture of American mobility is one of people/workers/households with essentially nowhere to go. Unemployment is ubiquitously high, and the housing market is lousy – can’t sell your home, can’t get a job. This Great Recession dragged net-domestic migration (moving within the US borders) down in all regions of the country.

Here are some of the headline results according to the Wall Street Journal:
The recession has had a profound effect on migration patterns in the U.S., reversing the flow of people to former housing-boom states such as Florida and Nevada, the latest data from the Census Bureau show.

In the year ending July 1, 2009, Florida — once the top draw for Americans in search of work and warmer climes — lost more than 31,000 residents to other states, the Census Bureau reported Wednesday. Nevada lost nearly 4,000. The numbers are small compared with the states’ populations, but they reflect a significant change in direction: In the year ending July 2006, Florida and Nevada attracted net inflows 141,448 and 41,640 people, respectively.

There’s no place to go. If you are in Michigan, for example, which state has the better prospects? And furthermore, homeowners are likely to find it very difficult to sell. It is worthwhile to compare the current experience with the cyclical downturn of 2001, when the unemployment rate increased for two years into 2003.

The chart below illustrates the net-domestic migration rate in 2003 and 2009 for each state, excluding the outliers which are listed in the text box. This is the state-level compliment of the first chart, which lists changes in migration patterns by region.

A 45-degree line is drawn: states above the line are seeing higher net-migration compared to 2003, while those below the line are posting lower net-migration than in 2003. Also, positive numbers indicate net-immigration (more people entering the state than leaving), while negative numbers indicate net-emigration (more people leaving the state than entering).

The first observation is that the “usual suspects”, Nevada, Florida, and Arizona, are the outliers. Nevada, for example, saw its net-domestic immigration rate of roughly 20% in 2003 turn negative by 2009, -1.5%. And compared to the previous recovery, which saw rising unemployment through the middle of 2003, states like Colorado, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Utah are experiencing increased migration into their states. However, a larger share of states are seeing migration patterns slowing or even turning negative. And finally D.C., home to the US government, is experiencing large migration inflows compared to the last recession, -17.8% to +7.5% in 2009. Best to be near the spending.

In the first chart, there is clearly a negative correlation between years in which the unemployment rate is rising (2003) and net-domestic migration across regions. But this time around, the magnitude is much larger – the labor market was hit harder and the housing market is in shambles.

A more flexible migration pattern would further the structural shift that is underway in the labor market (generally out of manufacturing and financial services and into alternate industries). It will take some time for the migration clog to free up, and the structural re-balancing of production and jobs will likely take some time. There’s just no quick fix.