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The mean center of population for the United States has moved steadily southward and westward since our Nation’s founding. For example, in 1790, the center of U.S. population was in Kent County along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. By the start of the Civil War it had moved to Pike County in South Central Ohio. The center crossed into Clay County, Illinois after World War II and now stands in in Phelps County, Missouri.

Clearly much of this early migration was due to the opening of the American West and the search for rich farmland and other natural bounties. However, the frontier closed at the end of the 19th century while the population migration continues – and at a more rapid pace than during the first two centuries since our founding.

The Census Bureau recently released its annual population estimates for 2007. The major findings include:

  • Eight of the ten fastest growing metropolitan areas (in percentage terms) were located in the South, with Palm Coast, FL adding 7.2 percent to its population between 2006 and 2007. The two non-southern areas include St. George, UT and Grand Junction, CO.

  • Eight of the ten metropolitan areas with the largest numerical additions to their populations were in the West or the South, led by the Dallas metro area adding 162,250 in just one year’s time (that is equivalent to adding a city larger that Dover, DE or Iowa City, IA in just one year).

  • Among the 50 fastest-growing metro areas are 47 cities in the South and Midwest.

  •  All but three of the ten areas with the largest decreases in population (by share) are in the North and Upper-Midwest, including the Detroit region, which lost over 1.4 percent of its population in a single year.

  • All but one of the ten areas suffering the largest numerical decreases in population were in the North and Upper-Midwest.

A great number of factors contribute to a decision to migrate from one location to another. Among these are weather, amenities, employment situation, family considerations, and more. While lower transportation costs, better information technology to aid in location and job search, and an expanded scope for labor markets are among the reasons it is easier for families to invest in a move today, they do not explain where families are choosing to locate.

It is useful to look at some characteristics of the areas that are gaining and losing population as a starting point for addressing why the recent migration has been happening. The table below shows the top ten fastest growing metropolitan areas (by size) and the bottom ten, along with some descriptive information about each.


While the conventional wisdom holds that migration to the South and West is largely driven by lower home prices in those regions, a casual inspection of the aggregate data do not bear this out. However, this illustrates the difficulty with using aggregate data to draw too many conclusions. It appears that areas that are losing population are those that have either extremely high home prices (such as Long Island) or really low ones (such as Youngstown). With some exceptions (though the complete census data tell a similar story) those areas gaining in population enjoy far lower home prices than can be found in many major metropolitan areas among the Northeast. For instance, for what a family would spend on an average sized and quality home in Long Island (with an hour commute to New York City), that same family could find far superior housing at half the cost in Dallas (and with a shorter commute). Those areas with low home prices that are losing population tend to be those with the lowest income growth rates between 2000 and 2007 (last column).

Broadly speaking, it appears that migration is moving toward states where regulatory burdens are lower (proxied by whether auto insurance rates exceed the national average), where there is no state income tax, and where the overall tax burden is lower (including federal taxes, as a share of personal income). In aggregate, migration does not appear to be driven by differences in income levels or growth rates between areas. We caution that these are very simple metrics, but the larger point remains that families continue to respond rationally to economic incentives.


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