Births, deaths, and international migration were just a few of the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic affected the American populace. Domestic migration trends were one of its more interesting effects.
While some long-standing patterns reversed and some small rural counties saw population gains rather than losses, others accelerated, such as the emigration from big metropolitan regions in the Northeast.
Smaller areas with fewer than 30,000 residents experienced population loss due to net domestic movement in 2019, the year before the pandemic struck the United States. Between 2020 and 2021, when the pandemic was at its worst, this reversed, and these least numerous areas saw an increase in domestic movement. The domestic movement caused lower population increases in 2022.
On the other hand, the biggest counties with a population of at least 1m were already experiencing population declines due to internal movement before the pandemic. However, the epidemic greatly worsened this outmigration, and in the previous year, this domestic outmigration slightly decreased in some areas.
According to Luke Rogers, Marc Perry, and Lindsay Spell, in the wake of the pandemic’s remarkable impact on domestic migration, parts of the country began showing signs of a rebound:
- Populous areas in the South and West, where growth through domestic migration waned at the height of the pandemic, resumed their pre-pandemic patterns. For example in Texas, Dallas County had net domestic outmigration of 25,000 in 2019 and 43,000 in 2021. The loss narrowed to just over 20,000 in 2022.
- Some major metro areas in the Northeast and Midwest that experienced a temporary lessening of net domestic outmigration during the peak pandemic had an increase in 2022.
- In New England, mid-sized counties with a population between 70,000 and 999,999 saw a very slim gain from net domestic migration in 2022.
- In the Middle Atlantic, small counties (under 70,000 population) saw gains from net domestic migration in 2022.
- In the Pacific Division, the smallest counties (under 30,000 population) saw a notable gain from domestic migration between 2020 and 2021. Most of the largest counties (over 1 million population) showed substantial losses that year. In many cases, these losses were higher than in prior years.
Fast Forward to 2021-2022
Small counties that experienced net domestic movement increase in the first year of the pandemic typically experienced slow or declining net domestic migration in 2021 and 2022, reverting to pre-pandemic levels.
The same reversal happened in the largest counties — losses they had experienced the previous year slowed: - in the West South Central Division (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas), a net loss of domestic migrants between 2020 and 2021 transitioned into a net gain between 2021 and 2022; - in the West’s Mountain Division (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) a net gain of domestic migrants slowed slightly.
Visualizing the Patterns
The northeast corridor, particularly around Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston, are generally urban areas that traditionally experience net domestic outmigration. In Florida, the Miami area is a distinct pocket of net domestic migration loss in the heart of a state with mostly net domestic migration gains. Other noteworthy places with large net domestic migration losses were upstate New York and the larger metro areas along the Great Lakes. Additionally, the major metro areas on the West Coast, from San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Diego, had substantial net domestic outmigration. In the Pacific Northwest, Portland and Seattle also stand out for net domestic migration losses.
While parts of the United States lost population through net domestic migration, this also means other parts gained. Most areas with large net domestic migration gains were in the South or West. Fast-growing metro areas in the West, such as Las Vegas and Phoenix, showed notable growth. In the South, net domestic migration gains were seen in Florida, the Carolinas, north Georgia (surrounding Atlanta), and in the major metro areas of Texas — although not in the urban cores of Dallas or Houston.
While it’s informative to see the broad patterns of domestic migration in 2022, the changes in net domestic migration (NDM) from the prior year are striking.
In addition, many rural areas that gained domestic migrants during the pandemic saw those gains slow or reverse completely.
Another interesting pattern is how some places with natural amenities, like those along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, experienced growth in 2021, which then slowed in 2022.