The Midwest Beat the South in Regional Domestic Migration in 2016

For years, if not decades, we’ve been hearing a familiar tale- that anyone and everyone is moving from the Midwest and Northeast to the South and West. This trend began during and after the collapse of Northern manufacturing, and as higher cost of living began to make the lower-cost South more attractive in particular. However, a lot of the South’s growth over the years- indeed a majority- never had anything to do with region-to-region migration. Instead, it was due largely to natural growth (births vs. deaths) and international migration, particularly from Central America. What received all the attention, though, was the belief that people were packing up and moving to the South from places like Ohio and other struggling Northern states. While that may have been true for a while, that is increasingly looking like it is no longer the case.

The Midwest, especially, has been derided as the region no one wants to live in. Despite its growing population approaching 66 million people, the common refrain was that its colder winters, flailing economies and questionable demographic future meant that it was simply a region being left behind by the booming Southern states.

Recently, the US Census released estimates for 2015-2016 geographic mobility, and they tell a very different story altogether.

First, let’s look at the total domestic migration moving to the Midwest from other regions.
South to Midwest: +309,000
West to Midwest: +72,000
Northeast to Midwest: +61,000
Total to Midwest: +442,000

And then compare that to the total that the Midwest sends to other regions.
Midwest to South: -254,000
Midwest to West: -224,000
Midwest to Northeast: -34,000
Total from Midwest: -512,000

Net difference by region.
Midwest vs. South: +55,000
Midwest vs. West: -152,000
Midwest vs. Northeast: +27,000
Total Net: -70,000

So while the Midwest is seeing and overall net domestic migration loss, it is entirely to the Western states.

This could just be an off year, as almost all recent years showed losses to the South, but then again, maybe not. The South has been in a boom for several decades now, and in that time, the region still lags the other 3 in almost every quality of life metric used. All booms end eventually, and the South’s 2 biggest perceived advantages, low cost of living and business-friendly climate, have been gradually eroding over time. As Census surveys show, people don’t actually move for a change in weather, so it’s the economic factors that are going to make the biggest impacts long-term. The Midwest now has many cities and several states that are doing well economically, including Columbus, and perhaps they are becoming more attractive than they have in many years. Time will tell, but last year, the narrative of an unattractive Midwest vs. South was at least temporarily shelved.