Internal Migration in the US: Updated Facts and Recent Trends

Topics: Labour economics, United States Census, IRS tax forms Pages: 58 (9689 words) Published: October 25, 2013
Internal Migration in the US: Updated Facts and Recent Trends* Raven Molloy
Federal Reserve Board of Governors
Christopher L. Smith
Federal Reserve Board of Governors
Abigail Wozniak
University of Notre Dame, NBER, and IZA
December 2010


Disclaimer: The analysis and conclusions set forth are those of the authors and do not indicate concurrence by other members of the research staff or the Board of Governors.

The idea that one can pick up and move to a location that promises better opportunities has long been an important part of the American mystique, a classic example being Steinbeck’s tale of the Joads heading west to escape the Dust Bowl. Indeed, one frequently-cited stylized fact is that internal migration rates—i.e. population flows between regions, states, or cities within a country—are higher in the US than in other countries. However, as with all things mythical and stylized, reality is more complex. The Dust Bowl migrants were actually exceptional in a period of markedly low internal migration (Ferrie 2003, Rosenbloom and Sundstrom 2004). And while the US has one of the highest migration rates in the world by many measures, citizens of some other countries—including Finland, Denmark and Great Britain—appear equally mobile. Moreover, migration in the US has been falling in the past several decades, calling into question whether high rates of geographic mobility are still a distinguishing characteristic of the US economy. In this article, we update the basic facts on internal migration within the US, adding fifteen years of data since an overview was last published. An examination of migration is particularly important in the context of the current economic environment of slow job growth and depressed housing market activity, because individual relocation decisions often involve changes in employment and housing consumption.

Economists have been interested in migration for more than a century. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a frequent topic of interest was movement from rural to urban areas.1 Researchers tended to focus on the social costs of migration, including the effects of “brain drain” from rural areas and the challenges to cities faced with absorbing migrants (Long, 1

Examples are Bachmura (1959) and Harris and Todaro (1970). Price and Sikes (1975) list over 1200 social science articles on the subject.


1988, Chapter 1). As decades passed and urbanization of the US slowed, interest in rural to urban movements waned. Economists developed a model of migration decisions founded in the economic ideas of individual maximization of expected net benefits to location choice. They also increasingly had access to data sources that allowed them to define migrants more precisely.2 Migration scholars, partly in conjunction with statistical agencies, converged on a broad definition of migration as a move over a long-enough distance to entail an appreciable change in the local economic environment.3 Researchers began focusing on the determinants of migration (describing who moves and why) and analyzing the equilibrating effects of migrants on local economies (Greenwood 1997).

This paper picks up the history of internal migration in the US in the 1980s, a period largely subsequent to the most recent comprehensive review on this topic, Greenwood 1997. We first provide a brief overview of the theoretical determinants of internal migration and discuss several empirical issues concerning measurement of migration. Next, we present some basic facts on migration during the 1980 to 2009 period. We document a downward trend in migration that has partly reversed increases in mobility earlier in the century. By contrast, relative differences in migration patterns across most demographic and socioeconomic groups were quite stable during this period. The widespread decline in migration rates across a large number of sub-populations...

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