Best & Worst States For Business 2022: The Great Not-Migration

Predictions of flight from big cities were a bit overblown, although reactions to Covid did heat up a few migratory routes that already were increasingly popular.

The Great Reshuffling has become more like the Slight Rearrangement. Early predictions that scared and frustrated residents of big, Covid-restrictive cities on the coasts would flock elsewhere have instead dissolved into a different reality: Most Americans who moved during the pandemic simply distanced themselves to suburbs and exurbs of the metro areas where they already lived.

With the pandemic receding and most Americans pivoting toward other concerns, the two years basically have seen “people in some of the bigger cities on the East Coast just moving to suburbs or smaller communities a few more train stops away,” says Larry Gigerich, an economic development consultant. “It solves the hassle factor.”

And while “San Francisco did see a big out-migration, it’s very evident from postal-service data that a large share of them stayed in California, and many simply moved to counties further out,” says Mark Muro, a Brookings Institution senior researcher. “But that’s neither a lifeline for the heartland nor the end of Silicon Valley.”

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Still, reactions to the coronavirus did heat up a few migratory routes that already were increasingly popular, including New Yorkers to Florida and Californians to Texas, as well as to Utah and other Rocky Mountain states. Also, people “are leaving Illinois” for lots of other places, “and it’s getting hard to get immigrants to move there,” says Alan Beaulieu, head of ITR Economics. “That means a bigger burden for the people who are left behind. There’s no positive spin on that.”

Another clear effect of the dynamics released by the pandemic—besides greater frictions in big-city living and the new era of remote work—is the creation of a number of new hot spots for young workers around the country, including medium-sized enclaves such as Virginia Beach, Virginia; Madison, Wisconsin; and Durham, North Carolina. Meanwhile, traditional tech strongholds, including Boston and San Francisco, have seen job growth slow or reverse.

“There’s new evidence of a group of up-and-coming, rising stars in tech-job growth, such as Dallas, Denver and Atlanta, that really are gaining momentum,” says Muro, who wrote a just-released report on the phenomenon. “I’m not betting against the tech-superstar cities, but there’s a case to be made for a few more echelons of places to grow and for some smaller places to compete by becoming platforms for people to work from home.”

Demographer Richard Florida agrees that “this whole creative-class thing has spread to Midwestern cities and others like Nashville and Tulsa. These cities have become cool. They’re working hard to make themselves interesting.”