December 30, 2022

COVID Only Accelerated the Blue State Exodus

Lockdowns, piled atop high taxes and restrictive housing regulations, got several million people on the move.

Where are Americans moving? And where, to make things more specific, have Americans been moving since the sudden onset of COVID lockdowns? Answers to these questions come from the annual Christmastime release of the Census Bureau’s estimates of the population of the 50 states and the District of Columbia as of last July.

Comparing those numbers to the decennial census count of April 1, 2020, just when COVID restrictions were put in place, provides a view of how Americans moved, or didn’t, during the pandemic and post-pandemic 27 months.

Domestic out-migration — the number of U.S. residents leaving the state minus those entering — in 2020-22 was 3.3% of the 2020 population in New York state and 2.2% in Illinois and California. These are staggering numbers, far higher than any other state. The losses are undoubtedly concentrated in central cities, as suggested by the District of Columbia, where pre-COVID population was growing but in 2020-22 was down 3.8%.

Not coincidentally, these states have some of the nation’s highest state and local tax rates and high housing costs due to restrictive regulations. That has spurred out-migration for more than a decade. The post-COVID woes — lockdowns and masking mandates, the post-George Floyd upward zoom in violent crime and the spread of homeless encampments — have sparked a larger exodus that seems unlikely to be fully reversed.

What else is striking? Looking at the map, you see domestic out-migration from all five states touching the Pacific Ocean, which was once the scenic promised land for many people. And you see domestic in-migration along Interstate 15 to Nevada, though it’s longer leading the nation in growth as in the 2000s, to heavily Mormon Utah and north to Idaho and Montana.

There’s also been movement eastward, along Interstate 10 to Arizona and Texas. The domestic in-migration into these five Mountain States (413,000) and Texas (475,000) almost precisely matches the domestic out-migration from California (871,000).

Turning to the east side of the map, you see enormous growth in the states along Interstates 95 and 85 south of metro Washington and Richmond. In 2020-22, while the national population grew by 0.6%, North Carolina was up 2.5%, South Carolina 3.2%, Georgia 1.9% and Florida up by 3.3%.

Domestic in-migration in these four states (1,128,000) comes close to matching the combined out-migration from New York and the I-95 states from Virginia north to Massachusetts, plus Illinois (1,285,000).

Florida has been a particular standout. Its domestic in-migration (622,000) almost exactly matches New York’s domestic out-migration (664,000). Total 2020-22 domestic in-migration into Florida was 2.9% of its 2020 population, a rate exceeded only by the much smaller states of Idaho, Montana and South Carolina.

The migration along these Interstate corridors is moving in the opposite directions of movements in the wartime and postwar decades from the 1940s to the 1970s. Then you saw substantial migrations of both Black and white Southerners up to the great cities of the Northeast — Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York — and to Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland in the industrial Midwest.

Similarly, wartime industries and postwar growth led people from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana to the fabled promised land of California and the Pacific Northwest. Those migrations were larger in absolute numbers and much larger in percentage terms than what we see today. Which makes the really large movements today — out of New York, Chicago and coastal California, into Florida and Texas — stand out so vividly.

For in much of the country, you see something like stasis, people staying in place, with birth rates lower than at any other time in history and with more deaths than births in 25 of the 50 states. In eight Southern states, outside Texas and the South Atlantic, and 11 Midwestern states outside Illinois, the population was up only 0.2% and domestic in-migration was 0.1%.

It should be obvious now that the old cliche about the Snow Belt emptying out into the Sun Belt is obsolete. Instead, you see movement from the supposedly idyllic Pacific coast north on I-15 and east on I-10 to Mountain States and Texas. You see an even larger shift from metro Washington to metro Boston southward on I-95 and I-85 to the Carolinas, Georgia and most of all to Florida.

In a generally prosperous and tolerant society — more prosperous and tolerant than the tenor of Twitter debate, in my view — it takes a lot to get people to move. What the census numbers show is that COVID lockdowns, piled atop high taxes and restrictive housing regulations, got several million people on the move in the 27 months from April 2020 to July 2022.

Those who moved are likely to be better off, but the self-damage inflicted on the places they left will be hard, in some respects impossible, to repair.


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