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.

The Big Lie: The Midwest vs. The South

For 50 years now, the story has been how the South has been booming while the Midwest has languished in perpetual decline. Nearly every day, a new ranking or story comes about how great the South is in relation to its Northern neighbors, but the more I’ve looked at the numbers, the more I realize that the hype is built upon lies, half-truths and cherry-picking data.

The first data point we’re going to look at is Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, a measure of the total economic output, for the Midwest vs. the South.
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So on this measure, the South is doing pretty well vs. the Midwest… or so it seems at first. The advantage the South has, however, is Texas. Without the behemoth state, the South has had growth on pace with the Midwest, though the recession did knock the Midwest down a bit from a fairly wide gap. Even so, the Midwest is ahead of the South without Texas, making it pretty clear that Texas is a HUGE reason for the South’s growth. All by itself, it nearly double’s the region’s GDP. The Midwest has no such massively dominant state. So does this mean that the South has Texas to thank for all the attention it gets? More light will be shed on this as we go.

Now let’s look at GDP growth by decade for the regions.
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Again, on the surface the South does well. The 2000s were especially kind to the South, while the Midwest declined some, likely due to the double recessions that occurred. However, during the 2010s so far, the Midwest has been growing a bit faster than the South (without Texas), something which hasn’t happened since the 1970s. Once more, Texas shows up as being the main contributor by FAR vs. all other Southern states combined.

Taking GDP further, what does it look like per-capita for the regions?
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First of all, the data only goes back to 1987, and the 1997 jump is because the data collection sources changed. In any case, the Midwest region is the leader here. The South has been stagnant for the last decade or so, while the Midwest, aside from during the recession, has seen a steady rise. Since the recession, the pace of per-capita GDP growth has accelerated, and the gap between the region and the South has widened. The Midwest has reached the US average, while the South, with or without Texas, is well below it and not catching up. What does this mean? Well, that despite relatively healthy GDP total growth in the South, it has simply not been fast enough to keep pace with either the national average or the Midwest. The Midwest has a much stronger economic output per its population than the South does, by almost $10,000 per person.

What about income?
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I know this chart is a bit hard to see, but it runs from 1930-2013. What it shows is that the Midwest has long had the highest per-capita income of the two regions. In fact, the gap between the two has grown steadily wider over years, and has accelerated in the last 5. The Midwest, while just below the national average now, is ahead of the South as a whole, Texas alone and the South without Texas.

To illustrate the income change over the 1930-2013 period further, let’s look at % growth by decade.
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This chart actually shows that the South generally performed much better by rate of growth from the 1970s and earlier. Since then, the rate of growth between the regions has been much closer, and in the 1990s and 2010s, the Midwest grew faster. What this seems to indicate is that the long term growth rate in income is gradually turning more strongly towards the Midwest after a long period where the South had faster growth. The Midwest has also seen faster growth than the national average since the 1980s, not exactly an indication of some kind of sustained decline.

So far, the picture is not quite as one-sided as we’ve been told.

What’s more interesting, especially from a total GDP standpoint, is that the Midwest is smaller than the South as a whole. To be more equal, you’d have to include the Northeastern states. This throws the entire dynamic out the window. In fact, the North combined is still the largest regional economy of the 3 (North, South, West) by about 13 percentage points.

Report on Domestic Migration by State

Over the last few decades, much attention has been given to the fact that domestic migration has heavily favored the “Sun Belt”, states made up of the Southeast west to the West Coast. While Northern states weren’t all losing people, the region as a whole sent far more people to the Sun Belt than they retained. This helped fuel the respective Southern boom, and media story after media story over the years have made sweeping predictions of this growing powerhouse region, often centered around the idea that the boom had no foreseeable end. The irony with these predictions is that they ignored history. For more than 2 centuries, the North was where people moved. Its states and cities saw massive influxes of population. As recently as the decade of the 1950s, Ohio grew by nearly 2 million alone. Economic conditions in decline, job losses, particularly in the manufacturing industry, increases in the cost of living and other factors ended the boom and helped to bring about the rise of the South, so to speak. Since at least the 1960s, the story has been about the Sun Belt/West.

The US Census does state migration estimates every year, and there are some interesting things going on in the data that may indicate that the boom in the South is faltering while the North’s fortunes are not looking as grim as they once did.

First, what are the regions?
South: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
North: Connecticut, Delaware, Washington D.C., Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin.
West: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Let’s next look at the states by rank of domestic migration in 2005, the earliest available year for the state data, and compared it to 2012, the most recent year available. This period covers the period just before and just after the Great Recession.

Domestic Migration Rank, 2005 vs. 2012, by Total
2005___________________________________2012
1. Florida: +188,035__________________________1. Florida: +108,823
2. Arizona: +131,501_________________________2. Texas: +105,565
3. Texas: +124,522__________________________3. Colorado: +43,530
4. Georgia: +88,250__________________________4. Washington: +37,187
5. North Carolina: +51,575_____________________5. North Carolina: +34,846
6. Tennessee: +43,901________________________6. South Carolina: +34,149
7. Oregon: +43,360___________________________7. Nevada: +25,835
8. Washington: +38,093________________________8. Arizona: +25,615
9. South Carolina: +32,312______________________9. Georgia: +25,204
10. Arkansas: +30,765_________________________10. Missouri: +20,176
11. Nevada: +26,839__________________________11. North Dakota: +14,254
12. Idaho: +20,308____________________________12. Tennessee: +13,255
13. Colorado: +16,963_________________________13. Virginia: +12,110
14. Oklahoma: +16,372_________________________14. Arkansas: +11,981
15. Alabama: +14,501__________________________15. Oregon: +10,742
16. New Mexico: +13,714_______________________16. New Hampshire: +10,711
17. Delaware: +12,561_________________________17. Delaware: +10,610
18. Virginia: +11,121___________________________18. Kentucky: +8,899
19. Kentucky: +7,451___________________________19. Mississippi: +6,569
20. Missouri: +6,338____________________________20. Oklahoma: +6,402
21. Iowa: +5,406_______________________________21. Utah: +5,717
22. Montana: +4,185____________________________22. Vermont: +4,375
23. Pennsylvania: +2,868________________________23. South Dakota: +3,578
24. Maine: +2,447______________________________24. Montana: +3,410
25. Hawaii: +2,388______________________________25. Idaho: +3,400
26. West Virginia: +998__________________________26. Wisconsin: +1,468
27. New Hampshire: +497________________________27. Iowa: +275
28. South Dakota: +360__________________________28. Ohio: -105
29. Wyoming: -366______________________________29. West Virginia: -300
30. Minnesota: -1,154____________________________30. Wyoming: -639
31. Kansas: -2,244______________________________31. Maryland: -2,821
32. North Dakota: -2,553__________________________32. Rhode Island: -2,948
33. Wisconsin: -2,756____________________________33. Louisiana: -4,741
34. Vermont: -3,580_____________________________34. Kansas: -4,850
35. Nebraska: -5,128____________________________35. Nebraska: -5,174
36. Utah: -5,639________________________________36. Hawaii: -6,364
37. Connecticut: -6,536__________________________37. Connecticut: -6,712
38. Mississippi: -7,120___________________________38. Washington D.C.: -7,470
39. Indiana: -9,222______________________________39. New Mexico: -9,228
40. Maryland: -9,718____________________________40. Alabama: -9,431
41. Washington D.C.: -12,872_____________________41. Indiana: -10,460
42. Rhode Island: -15,037________________________42. Maine: -11,025
43. New Jersey: -22,051_________________________43. Minnesota: -14,904
44. Alaska: -23,567_____________________________44. Massachusetts: -15,579
45. Ohio: -40,841______________________________45. Pennsylvania: -21,656
46. Massachusetts: -52,726______________________46. Michigan: -41,761
47. Michigan: -53,852___________________________47. Alaska: -49,250
48. Illinois: -55,932_____________________________48. Illinois: -68,356
49. Louisiana: -99,684__________________________49. California: -73,345
50. New York: -239,848_________________________50. New Jersey: -89,666
51. California: -266,243_________________________51. New York: -135,149

So in 2005, the breakdown was as follows:
12 of 14 Southern states had positive domestic migration. The only 2 that did not, Louisiana and Mississippi, were heavily influenced in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which caused large numbers of displaced residents to leave the states entirely.
7 of 24 Northern states has positive domestic migration. The 7 states were mixed between the Midwest and the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic. Just one Great Lakes State had positive domestic migration in 2005.
9 of 13 Western states had positive domestic migration. Only California and a few Mountain West states had negative numbers.

The 2005 numbers show the overall domestic migration picture as it had been for at least the last few decades, if not much longer. The South and West were the dominant net gainers of domestic migration, while most of the North sent people to those regions.

In 2012, the breakdown was as follows:
11 of 14 Southern states had positive domestic migration. Even with Katrina-hit state Mississippi having net gains in 2012, the overall number of states with positive gains declined.
8 of 24 Northern states had positive domestic migration, a slight improvement over 2005.
8 of 13 Western states had positive domestic migration, a slight decline over 2005.

But the breakdowns don’t tell us the whole story. When trying to compare the two years, trends are very important, and the trends are far more revealing.

Total Change 2005-2012 By Rank
1. California: +192,898
2. New York: +104,699
3. Louisiana: +94,943
4. Ohio: +40,736
5. Massachusetts: +37,147
6. Colorado: +26,567
7. North Dakota: +16,807
8. Missouri: +13,838
9. Mississippi: +13,689
10. Michigan: +12,091
11. Rhode Island: +12,089
12. Utah: +11,356
13. New Hampshire: +10,214
14. Vermont: +7,955
15. Maryland: +6,897
16.Washington, D.C.: +5,402
17. Wisconsin: +4,224
18. South Dakota: +3,218
19. South Carolina: +1,837
20. Kentucky: +1,448
21. Virginia: +989
22. Nebraska: -46
23. Connecticut: -176
24. Wyoming: -273
25. Montana: -775
26. Washington: -906
27. Nevada: -1,004
28. Indiana: -1,238
29. West Virginia: -1,298
30. Delaware: -1,951
31. Kansas: -2,606
32. Iowa: -5,131
33. Hawaii: -8,752
34. Oklahoma: -9,970
35. Illinois: -12,424
36. Maine: -13,472
37. Minnesota: -13,750
38. North Carolina: -16,729
39. Idaho: -16,908
40. Arkansas: -18,784
41. Texas: -18,957
42. New Mexico: -22,942
43. Alabama: -23,932
44. Pennsylvania: -24,524
45. Alaska: -25,683
46. Tennessee: -30,646
47. Oregon: -32,618
48. Georgia: -63,046
49. New Jersey: -67,615
50. Florida: -79,212
51. Arizona: -105,886

5 of 14 Southern states improved their domestic migration rates 2005-2012.
13 of 24 Northern states improved their domestic migration rates 2005-2012.
3 of 13 Western states improved their domestic migration rates 2005-2012.

Ohio had the 4th best improvement over the period, a huge change. But some might ask, is it really a change when the rates may still be positive or negative like they were before? Well, yes and no. 7 years is not that long, and we’re talking about decades-long patterns here. Those won’t change like flipping a switch. It will take time. The point is more that for many states that have faced negative numbers for a long time, there is positive momentum now that they did not have before. Another question some may ask, however, is if the recession during the period reduced mobility. In some cases, I’m sure that it did, but if so, that reduction seems to have been centered on the South. A reduction in mobility would only indicate that migration rates would reduce to levels around 0, neither particularly positive nor negative. That reduction would NOT necessarily support switches from positive to negative or increases in negative or positive rates that already exist. Meaning that reduced mobility would mean that positive would become less positive as fewer people moved in, and negative would become less negative as fewer people left. On a state and regional basis, there is a wide range of results that do not support that geographic mobility alone is the culprit, or even a primary factor.

In Part 2, we’ll look more closely at how regions and individual states are performing relative to each other.