Exodus From Western, Blue States Toward South Gathers Steam

Experts aren’t sure at this point if the dramatic pull of the South is a short-term change spurred by the Covid pandemic or a long-term trend.

AP/John Raoux
Owen Glick gets ready to play pickle ball at Winter Park, Florida. Mr. Glick was among the 233,000 people who left a Western state for another state out of the region. AP/John Raoux

The U.S. population center is on track this decade to take a southern swerve for the first time in history, and it’s because of people like Owen Glick, who moved from California to Florida more than a year ago.

Last year, the South outgrew other American regions by well over 1 million people through births outpacing deaths and domestic and international migration, according to population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The Northeast and Midwest lost residents, and the West grew by an anemic 153,000 people, primarily because a large number of residents left for a different region. The West would have lost population if not for immigrants and births outpacing deaths.

In contrast, the South grew by 1.3 million new residents, and six of the 10 American states with the biggest growth last year were in the South, led in order by Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia.

Experts aren’t sure at this point if the dramatic pull of the South is a short-term change spurred by the Covid pandemic or a long-term trend, or even what impact it will have on the reallocation of political power through redistricting after the 2030 census. 

Because of delays caused by the pandemic, changes were made in how the Census Bureau has calculated the estimates this decade, and that, too, may have had an impact.

But experts say the Southern allure has to do with a mix of housing affordability, lower taxes, the popularity of remote work during the pandemic era and baby boomers retiring.

Mr. Glick, 56, and his then-partner moved to the Orlando area from metro San Diego in December 2021 after he retired from his job in corporate sales. They had been making regular trips to central Florida before their move, to check on rental properties they had purchased because they were more affordable in the Sunshine State than in Southern California.

While the cost of housing and food is lower than in California, there are hidden home upkeep costs in Florida, such as the need to paint more often because of the unrelenting sun and higher utility bills from year-round air conditioning, he said.

“You’re in better financial shape in terms of prices here, but there are more expenditures to maintain properties,” Mr. Glick said.

Mr. Glick was among the 233,000 people who left a Western state and planted roots in a different region from mid-2021 to mid-2022. He joined the ranks of the almost 868,000 people who moved to a Southern state from another region.

If the trend continues through the rest of this decade, by 2030 the mean center of the population of the United States will head due south from a rural county in the Missouri Ozarks, without a westward extension for the first time in history, according to urban planner Alex Zakrewsky, who models the population center.

Since the population center was first calculated to be in Chestertown, Maryland, in 1790, it has moved continuously westward, though it started taking a more southwestern tilt in the 20th century as the spread of air conditioning made the South more livable.

“If this really pans out, it is really historical,” said Mr. Zakrewsky, a principal planner for Middlesex County, New Jersey.

North Carolina state demographer Michael Cline said the growth in the South has been “above and beyond” trends the region experienced before the pandemic, which he thinks may have accelerated many movers’ decisions to relocate from cold-climate states or allowed people to work remotely for the first time.

The departures from the West started in 2021, during the first full year of the pandemic, when 145,000 residents moved to another region. Up until then, domestic migration to the West had increased each year since 2010.

A substantial portion of the departures was due to people leaving California, but Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington also had year-to-year losses in domestic migration from 2021 to 2022. Additionally, in several Western states that had year-to-year increases in domestic migration — Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Utah — those increases were smaller than in the previous year.

In Oregon, the jury is still out on whether the phenomenon of more than 17,000 departures to other states was a temporary, pandemic-related trend due to remote-working freedoms and housing affordability, or whether it’s a longer-term movement due to quality of life issues such as crime, weather or wildfires, said Josh Lehner, an economist for the state.

Oregon, which gained a congressional seat in 2021 from the previous decade’s boom, hadn’t experienced a population decline since the 1980s, when the lumber industry downsized and the housing market collapsed.

“If we aren’t seeing that growth in labor force as we normally do, that means economic activity will be slower, state revenues will be lower. It’s a question we are struggling with,” Mr. Lehner said.

Mr. Lehner added that he wanted to see more data from 2023 “before I freak out.”

William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Metro think tank, also wants to see if the trend is only related to the pandemic or has legs through the rest of the decade. A big wild card is immigration, which was responsible for most of the growth in 2022, he said.

“Some of that has to do with getting away from the big dense coastal metros to somewhere else,” Mr. Frey said. “One thing that needs to be questioned is if the patterns of the past two years will continue for the rest of the decade.”

Associated Press

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