U.S. Migration Patterns Report

Synopsis

We studied migration patterns in every state from January 2019 to June 2022 to understand how America is reforming itself in the wake of Covid and at the dawn of a recession.

Introduction and Methodology

This is the first in a series of quarterly reports on United States Migration Patterns. The purpose of the October 2022 report is to quantify the relative population flow of each state from January 1, 2019 to June 30, 2022, a window that precedes the Covid-19 pandemic and perhaps captures the early stages of a recession.

Unacast gathers aggregated GPS data from smartphones and mobile apps, with opt-in consent from users (all of our data is privacy-compliant in the markets in which we operate). Each of our datasets has a clearly defined schema that is well-documented. Read about Unacast's data accuracy.

We then analyze and contextualize data for purposes of providing accurate location intelligence to understand population flow. We regularly compare our products to third-party or independent sources to identify where improvements can be made. Read more about Unacast’s ground truth analysis.

All insights offered in this report were derived from Unacast’s Migration Patterns dataset. The Migration Patterns dataset is refreshed every 30 days. While we focus on state-level data in this report, the schema also allows for examination down to the zip code level. All population flow figures are rounded to the nearest one-tenth or one-twentieth of a percent. 

Western Shuffle

WA, OR, CA (AZ, NV)

COASTAL AREAS COOL, DESERT AREAS HEAT UP

The coastal states — WA, OR and CA — all lost population since 2019, with California the clear net-loser entering Q4 of 2022. While decline in Washington (-.10%) and Oregon (-.20%) is within a narrow margin and not high in terms of absolute numbers, California’s decline is notable, representing perhaps as many as 380,000 people who have left the state since 2019. 

us migration patterns

About a third of that loss came in 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic first struck. Since then, losses have halved each year, with total decline in 2022 projecting towards -.25% — an improvement, but still a long way off historical growth for the state. 

A closer examination of county-level migration flows tells a clear story about where much of the loss to-date has occurred, and the pronounced effect of the human exodus from the San Francisco Bay area.

CLOSER LOOK: THE BAY AREA

THE EXODUS IS REAL

When we first examined migration patterns in the Bay Area in 2021, the decline was already evident, but some indication of migration flow from city areas to other nearby counties made us optimistic the shift might be more localized or temporary than we have seen in other large urban areas.

In this analysis, every county in the immediate Bay Area we measured had negative population flow for the period measured. The range of decline was between a modest -.30% in Solano, to the mean of about -1.7% in San Francisco, to a troublesome -2.5% in Santa Cruz and Napa. In fact, you have to go as far inland as San Joaquin to find a net-positive migration flow winner anywhere near the Bay Area.

bay area migration patterns


CA SPOTLIGHTS

CENTRAL AND SOUTHERN

Of course, California is not devoid of areas of growth. You just have to wander inland a bit and squint to find less populated, more rural counties where population is increasing. Just east of the Bay Area, for example, San Joaquin is defying the odds to grow at +.80% since 2019. Other central CA counties down to Fresno are also experiencing growth. Perhaps some of those who abandoned the Bay Area decided a short hop from the city was their preferred landing spot after all?

Riverside is a sizable county (about 2.4 million) just east of Orange County and south of L.A. that’s doing quite well — growth of about +.45% since 2019. Is that an example of near-to-home urban exodus? Could be. But the southeastern part of California is doing pretty well generally, with San Bernardino and Kern joining Riverside as net positive as of Q3 2022.

california migration patterns


Unfortunately, at the very south of the state and once again directly on the coast, San Diego County is down about -1.4% in population since 2019. While that’s bad news in a border town, it is at least consistent with what is happening along the Canadian border, to the north (more on that below: Border Issues).

Central Stability

ND, SD, NB, KS, OK, TX (CO)

OK AND TX UP THE GROWTH CURVE

Providing a pillar of strength in the middle of the nation, the central states we examined tell us a pretty consistent tale of growth throughout the pandemic and into this lingering period of recession. North Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska all recorded positive net population flows of between +.20% and +.50%, while South Dakota registered as flat for the period measured. In this region, only Colorado (not exactly a central state but included for geographic proximity) with -.30% net flow, measured negative for population growth. 

Although Oklahoma, at four million people, is a mid-sized state, its growth rate (+1.90%) since 2019 has been anything but average. Positive migration flow in Oklahoma peaked in 2020, and has declined over the last 18 months, but still remains well-ahead of pre-pandemic levels, demonstrating consistent strength through the challenging time frame measured. A little further south, Texas is also growing, albeit in a different manner than Oklahoma.

state migration patterns

CLOSER LOOK: TEXAS CITIES

URBAN AREAS BEATING THE ODDS

Growing on the whole at +.90% net population flow since 2019, Texas is a bit of an outlier among other states in terms of the manner in which it is growing. Specifically, much of the strength in Texas comes from the growth of its major urban centers, defying the exodus narrative we have seen in many other places.

Trendy Austin has grown a healthy +.55% since 2019, with Dallas (+.85%) and San Antonio (+1.0%) following suit. Only Houston, at -.10% experienced negative growth in the period measured. That the percentage is that small is again something of an anomaly.

texas migration patterns

Unlike San Francisco, which saw negative flow in all surrounding counties, some counties connected to the Houston area, including Montgomery (+6.8%) and Fort Bend (+1.4%), have experienced concurrent growth. We hypothesize that this is due to Covid-era population shifts from Houston and Harris County to these connecting areas. This pattern of counties that border, or are near, urban centers experiencing growth repeats itself as we move to the southeastern United States.

Southeast Surging

AB, FL, GA, AK, KY, MS, NC, SC, TN (LA)

PRONOUNCED GROWTH TREND

Since 2019, the southeastern United States has almost uniformly experienced pronounced population growth, with both Alabama (+2.8%) and South Carolina (+2.0%) among the national leaders in growth. Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee have all checked-in with greater than 1% growth in the same timeframe. In this region, only Louisiana (-.50%) was a net-loser of population.

CLOSER LOOK: ALABAMA

THE TIDE RUNS NORTH

To understand what’s behind the south rising, let’s take a closer look at our unlikely national leader in net population growth: Alabama, at +2.8%. To put that into perspective, Alabama has experienced about 1.3x the growth of fellow southeastern state, South Carolina, and about 1.5x the growth rate of next runners-up Oklahoma and Idaho, which are both from that column of central strength we discussed above.

alabama migration patterns

Breaking things down to look at the performance of urban centers in Alabama, we see a repeat of the trend in Texas wherein smaller cities are bucking the negative migration trend. Strength is greatest to the north of the state where Hunstville has experienced a robust 2.7% growth since 2019. 

Birmingham checks in with +.35% growth, while Mobile registers at +.60%. Only Montgomery, towards the southern center of the state, has had a negative flow, with about -.40% of the population leaving the area over the 30 months we measured.

Northeast Contracting

CT, ME, MA, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT (DE)

RECESSION ERA VULNERABILITY

The only state from this group of 10 to grow since the start of 2019 was Delaware, at a modest +.40%. All nine other states lost population, with New York (-1.6%), Massachusetts (-1.4%) and Vermont (-1.6%) taking the biggest hits. While the damage is widespread in the northeast, the news is even worse in major cities, including Boston (-1.1%), and especially in New York City and its surrounding counties. 

northeast migration patterns

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CLOSER LOOK: NYC AREA

DOWN BUT NOT OUT

It is no secret that NYC population flow took a beating during Covid. What is surprising is how pronounced the effects of negative migration have been in the city core, and the fact that there is some indication that population flow there may yet again turn positive.

New York County and population in the city proper is down big, about -4.9% since the start of 2019. That is by far the most precipitous dropoff anywhere in the United States. The neighboring counties of Bronx (-1.9%), Queens (-2.4%), and Kings (-2.4%) don’t look much better. 

Clearly, in the NYC area, the movement away from the downtown core is very real. That speaks volumes for real estate investors, retailers and others looking to invest in growth areas. The good news though is that things may be taking a turn for the better in the city that never sleeps.

That’s because the trend so far in 2022 for New York County and the downtown core is actually slightly positive — a modest gain of a few thousand people year-to-date. The Bronx, Queens and Kings have yet to follow suit, but the trend is heading in the right direction as we prepare to enter 2023.

nyc migration patterns

Border Issues

ME, NH, VT, NY, PA, OH, MI, MN, ND, MT, ID, WA, AK

CONSISTENT WEAKNESS AT NORTHERN CROSSINGS

Bet you didn’t know that no less than 13 states share a land or water border with Canada, far and away America’s largest trading partner. Along the world’s longest unprotected border sit major international crossing points, ports, and cities of all sizes. In almost all cases, these border states have suffered meaningful population loss in the wake of Covid-19 and pandemic-era border restrictions.

The average northern border state is down about -.50% in net population since the start of 2019. Vermont, New York and Alaska are hardest hit, while only North Dakota and Idaho recorded a net gain, with neither state registering much cross border traffic flow.

Detroit, home to America’s busiest border crossing, was down about -.50% since 2019. That top-line number isn’t too bad until you realize that Detroit was actually slightly net positive for population flow in 2020, before plummeting in the last 18 months. So, while the baseline measurement is in line with other cities, the rate of acceleration of decline since 2021 — about -.80% — is more concerning.

Buffalo has a different story to tell. A mid-sized border city like Detroit, Buffalo has been growing since 2020 (about +3.4%) and seems to have weathered Covid pretty well. Farther west, in Washington State, the nearest major city to multiple international border crossings is Seattle, where population flow is also negative at -.60%. That rate of decline isn’t getting worse so far in 2022, but it’s not showing signs of getting any better, either. To the south, at the Mexican border, things are muddled.

BY CONTRAST: THE SOUTHERN BORDER

PROXIMITY & POPULATION GROWTH

Four states border Mexico, providing 48 border crossing points: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Two states (CA, NM) are declining, two (AZ, TX) are growing, and most do a little worse in terms of net population growth the closer you get to the Mexican border.

Earlier, we discussed how San Diego was down, but much of the rest of the southern end of California (about 10 counties) is growing in population. That’s far different than at the northern end of the state where decline is very much the norm.

In Arizona, Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, is up about +.65%. That’s a little below state average but comparatively strong for the host to such a locally dominant urban area. 

Texas we discussed a little earlier, though it’s worth noting that El Paso — right on the Mexico border — bucks the statewide growth trend with a loss of about -1.5% of population between the start of 2019 and mid 2022.

southern migration patterns

Finally, New Mexico, with its three border crossing points, is down about 1.4%, based largely on decline in Albuquerque. 

So, while the border to the north is mostly experiencing negative growth, some southern border states and cities are faring well, indicating perhaps that population depletion risk is greater go-forward in the north, than to the south.

Observations

While west coast population flow seems to be moving generally inland, away from the coast, there exists multiple clusters of counties just outlying urban areas that exhibit growth. Likewise, while the exodus from the Bay Area is real, so is the population growth around Phoenix, in Arizona’s most populous county.

The center of the U.S. is growing, if slowly. Viewed from above, there is a pillar of strength representing net population flow and, as a result, growing economic strength. While Oklahoma is the net leader, it’s Texas grabbing headlines for recording positive population growth in three of the state’s four largest cities.

It’s tough to pick a loser in the southeast states. Everybody knows Florida’s tale of expanding populations, and it’s no shock that South Carolina, which is quite literally at the crossroads of trade, is also doing well. Lesser appreciated is the boom in Alabama, which, like Texas, recorded growth in three of its four largest cities.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the northeast is contracting uniformly, led by a tremendous plunge in population in major city centers, most notably, New York City. That said, the tide of population flow shows signs of turning mid-way through 2022 in downtown New York, but with a malingering recession, there's no guarantee that trend will continue.

Nearly all states along the Canadian border have seen a reduction in population since the start of 2019. The heaviest period of negative net flow began in 2020 and is bracketed by the reopening of the border to normal traffic. 

On the southern border, there is a mixed bag of weakness and strength that seems somehow correlated to relative distance to the border and the volume of border crossing traffic. Understanding this correlation will take more research.

This report scratches the surface of what Unacast’s Migration Patterns dataset can tell us about changes in population flow in the United States. Schedule a meeting with one of our data experts to learn more or request a free data sample to get started.

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