Much has been written about “mass exoduses” from large urban areas across the country due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many articles infer that the pandemic sparked a significant surge in residents fleeing the nation’s cities. While it is true that a handful of the largest, most expensive urban centers like New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco experienced a large increase in out-migration over 2019, the data does not support the notion that unusually high out-migration occurred in most of the nation’s cities, or that substantially all of the increased out-migration that did occur was driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. What is supported by the data is that while the pandemic caused an uptick in moving, it was insufficient to change the long-term trend of declining domestic mobility.
Domestic migration has been in a steady decline within the United States since the 1960s when on average, 20% of the population moved annually. Over the last half of the twentieth century, a confluence of economic and demographic factors worked to reduce the advantages of moving. By the early 2000s, the percent of the population that moved annually dropped to between 14% and 15%. The decade between 2010 and 2020 saw the continuation of that steady decline as the Great Recession pushed migration rates even lower, the direct result of both the housing and labor markets crashes. By the end of the recession, domestic migration rates had dropped to the 11% to 12% range.
The slow recovery from the recession kept domestic migration on a downward path since 2012, landing at 9.3% in the year between March 2019 and March 2020. Then March 2020 brought us the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most disruptive force in a century.
The pandemic has changed the way we live and work in profound ways. Many of these changes may remain long after the pandemic subsides. For example, several surveys of employers establish that many plan to keep their work-from-home policies (WFH) in place indefinitely. How much domestic migration was driven by the pandemic? How did the pandemic influence the decision to move? Where did those who moved choose to relocate?
Pandemic-Caused Domestic Migration
The National Association of Realtors recently analyzed the change of address data from the U.S. Post Office (USPS) from the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 through October 2020 to understand the impact of COVID-19 on U.S. migration. That data showed that 8.95 million people moved their residences between March and October, up from the 8.82 million people that moved during the same period in 2019. The graph below outlines the monthly numbers of people moving in 2019 and 2020 in March through October 2020. What is noteworthy from this data is that the greatest monthly difference between 2019 and 2020 came in the first two months of the pandemic, March and April, when approximately 340,000 more people moved than in the same months of 2019. Since there is no evidence that this year-over-year increase in migration was driven by any changes in the pre-pandemic factors that have kept domestic migration declining for decades (e.g., lower immigration, more deaths, and lower birth rates), it seems clear that pandemic-related considerations were the reason for the increase.
Census Bureau data for the entire year of 2020 helps put the amount of pandemic-induced moving in perspective. According to the Census Bureau, 29.8 million people moved in 2020, 3.9% less than 2019.1 Estimates derived from a moving data report indicate that approximately 25%, or roughly 7.45 million movers in 2020, moved because of the pandemic.2 So while the pandemic certainly induced a large number of Americans to move, it was not enough to impact the downward trajectory of domestic migration we’ve seen over the past many decades.
Pandemic Related Reasons to Move
The national reaction to the pandemic was swift and far-reaching. Nationwide lockdown and shelter-in-place orders shut down all normal activities overnight. Daily growing mortality reports put the country in a state of constant fear. Against this backdrop, over 7 million people chose to move. To understand how the pandemic influenced their decisions to move, HireAHelper surveyed 4,000 of their customers who indicated that they moved because of the pandemic. Respondents provided the following reasons for their moves:
As the pandemic persisted, many pandemic migrants that moved in the fall of 2020 indicated that they relocated due to financial stress over a fear of getting the virus.3 In a November Pew Research Center survey, 33% of respondents cited financial stress and pressures (including job loss) as their main reason for moving, up from 18% in a June survey.
Where People Moved During 2020
While the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly contributed to an uptick in moving volume last year, established moving patterns remained pretty much unchanged. Historically, the vast majority of Americans who move, move an average distance of 27 to 30 miles. About 80% of movers relocate within their county, with many staying within the same zip code.
USPS change of address data for January 1, 2020 to October 1, 2020, analyzed by Bankrate.com, confirmed this historical trend. Of the slightly more than 4 million change of address requests examined by Bankrate.com, 3.6 million (89.6%) were for mail to forward to addresses within the same county. In contrast, only 420,970 (10.4%) requested their mail forward to another county or a different state.
Top destinations for people relocating from dense urban areas last year were the suburbs and exurbs.4 For example, the top choice for residents leaving Manhattan was Brooklyn, followed by East Hampton. Mesquite, Texas was the primary suburb of choice for those leaving Dallas.
So, the key domestic migration takeaways from the first year of the pandemic are:
1. The pandemic’s challenges did cause an increase in domestic migration during the early months of 2020, but that increase was not enough to change American mobility’s decades-long decline. At this time, there is no reason to believe that as more Americans get vaccinated, and the economy continues to recover, domestic migration rates will change from the downward trend seen over the past few decades.
2. A total of 25% of the people who moved last year did so because of COVID. Their main reasons were financial (job or income loss), fear of COVID (somewhere with fewer COVID cases or more restrictions), and shelter in place with or take care of family members. More than a quarter of those who moved did so because they started working from home and no longer needed to live close to work.
3. Of the 29.8 million people that moved in 2020, only a small percentage moved out of the county they were living in. Nearly 90% of all movers chose to stay within their county. Movers leaving large cities overwhelmingly decided to move to the surrounding suburbs and exurbs, which helps explain the rapid acceleration of home prices in the suburbs we’ve seen over the past year.
As we move through 2021, there is much that is unknown. While vaccines and therapeutics developed to end the COVID threat are deployed, fear of variants of the virus keeps our recovery tentative. If extended long-term, WFH policies may continue to encourage migration out of urban areas as the need to be close to work diminishes. Shopping through e-commerce and the proliferation of home delivery services, necessitated by the business shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders of 2020, have also made it more attractive to move out of the higher-density urban areas. If pandemic-related concerns continue this year, we can expect to see the pandemic-caused migration patterns of 2020 repeated. But in the long run, it is most likely that COVID will be controlled, our economy will fully open, driving strong economic growth, and the domestic migration patterns we’ve seen over the past several decades will continue.
Director of Research
Written by John Fioramonti
Senior Market Analyst
Kidder Mathews Research
1 2020 Migration/Geographic Mobility data derived from the Current Population Survey.
2 HireAHelper.com, https://www.hireahelper.com/moving-statistics/migration-report/
3 Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/02/04/as-the-pandemic-persisted-financial-pressures-became-a-bigger-factor-in-why-americans-decided-to-move/
4 ‘Exurbs” is short for “Extra-Urban” which usually refers to communities that are further out than the suburbs.