Recent work from the Applied Population Laboratory shows that the economic shocks of the housing market crisis and Great Recession slowed down migration within the United States. During the recession, fewer Americans moved to new counties—possibly because they were “frozen in place”—trapped with houses they couldn’t sell, retirement plans that lost value, and a precarious labor market that offered little incentive to relocate.  

The new APL brief report shows that migration patterns in the period before the Great Recession were consistent with those of the last few decades. People were moving in large numbers to the West and Southeast; into the suburbs of most major cities; and into recreational areas in New England, the Upper Great Lakes, and the Mountain West. Rural areas were losing population to migration, a process sometimes called “brain drain.”  

These regional migration flows slowed down during the recession period. Rural counties which have historically seen net migration losses saw smaller losses or even gains due to migration, while counties with historical patterns of net migration gains (more people moving in than moving out) saw less growth than usual. Suburban counties in particular have seen large growth due to incoming migrants for decades. This is part of a long-standing trend of people moving from urban cores into suburbs and exurbs. However, suburban counties saw a substantial decline in their net migration gains during and after the recession.  

These migration trends affect planning and economic issues ranging from school district planning to the need for consumer goods in affected counties. What will happen now that the economic impact of the recession is finally waning? Will migration revert to pre-recessionary patterns, or did the Great Recession usher in a new era of migration? So far, there are few indications of a reversion to historic urban-rural migration patterns. 

The full report is available here. For questions, contact the Katherine Curtis or David Egan-Robertson directly. This is the first in a series of planned brief reports, Population Trends in Post-Recession Rural America series. The briefs provide information about current trends confronting rural people and their communities in the United States.