A reader recently sent me an article from Governing addressing an issue near and dear to me: are people moving out of cities in significant numbers? Has the pandemic increased those numbers?

I’d seen a couple of New York Times articles about an exodus from New York City to “healthier” outlying areas, and of course, there is an ongoing debate about the sustainability of the national population shift from small town America to the nation’s cities. The article addressed two highly pertinent questions: are lots of people really leaving cities, and why do people move anywhere?

As most readers of this blog have figured out by now, I’m a “city girl.” (Well, “girl” might be stretching things…) I’m a huge fan of urban life, and a believer in the social and intellectual benefits of density and diversity, so I was interested in an article that looked at what the evidence suggested, rather than what various theories have propounded. And the article actually started by distinguishing theory from reality

There’s an old joke about economists that I’ve always liked. A junior professor goes to his senior colleague with a brilliant new idea. The older man dismisses it. “That may be fine in practice,” he sniffs, “but it will never work in theory.”

Economists are like that, at least many of them. They don’t like to have reality intrude on their abstractions. One of the best examples has to do with mobility. Years ago, I read an article by a prominent economist downplaying the problem of a small-town factory that spews out pollution. What’s the big deal, he asked. There must be another town nearby without a soot-belching factory. The residents of the first town could just move over there. Pretty soon the polluter would get the idea.

It works in theory. But it isn’t the way most people behave. They don’t like the idea of uprooting themselves. This may be because they don’t want to leave their friends and relatives, because they cling to hometown memories and traditions, or maybe because they just don’t feel like cleaning out the garage. In any case, they don’t move. Or if they do, they don’t go far away.

The article acknowledged the predictions that have been worrying me–the economic forecasts of an “outpouring of affluent Americans from virus-plagued cities to safer rural climes.” One libertarian predicted a flood of “fresh college graduates and new parents” lighting out for Mayberry, accompanied by employees no longer tethered to corporate buildings downtown. (This rosy scenario overlooks the fact that COVID is currently ravaging the nation’s “Mayberries.”)

So what does the evidence show?

There has been an outflow from many urban neighborhoods, but it hasn’t been very large. Last June, a careful study by the Pew Research Center found that 3 percent of Americans reported moving permanently or temporarily for reasons related to the coronavirus. In November, the number was up to 5 percent. That’s not a trivial number of people, but it’s far short of a national exodus…

It’s also interesting to see where those folks are going. The largest destination of people leaving San Francisco last year was across the bay, to Oakland and surrounding Alameda County. The three next most common destinations were all in the Bay Area as well. Other targets were Denver; Portland, Oregon; and Austin, Texas–not Mayberry.

Most people who did move cited economic reasons–job loss, especially–not the pandemic.

Most cities that lost population in 2020 didn’t lose it because of people leaving. They shed population because newcomers weren’t coming. In New York City, according to a McKinsey study, the ratio of arriving workers to departing ones was down 27 percent. This, too, is only common sense. Why would you move into New York when jobs were disappearing there? Similar numbers apply to Los Angeles, Boston and Seattle.

This has the makings of a significant event. Nearly all the big cities that gained or held onto population numbers in the past decade did so because of immigrants arriving from outside the United States. If they stop coming for an extended length of time, big-city populations could drop significantly even if the mass exodus continues to be a myth.

The racist assault on immigration has had an effect on cities. As the article notes, America’s most vibrant cities have become enclaves of affluent professionals and modestly paid service workers–the bulk of whom have been immigrants. If the immigrants stop coming,  we’re likely to see a shortage of urban workers and a decline in demand for housing in many urban neighborhoods. That could make central cities more attractive, and not just to immigrants– it could fuel added arrivals by young professionals. Or…??

I’m sure economists will have a theory…


  1. And when the “healthier” outlying areas are overcrowded and become less “healthier”, the exodus to return to cities will begin.

    From the 1976 Joni Mitchell hit song, “From Both Sides Now”:
    “I’ve looked at life from both sides now
    From win and lose
    And still somehow
    It’s life’s illusions I recall
    I really don’t know life at all”

    At almost 84 years of age; I have seen the changes come and go; made a few changes in my own life and while change is inevitable, I wonder whatever happened to those who chose to “grow where they were planted”? “The grass is always greener…” illusion brings about “progress” which does not always mean improvement. In my lifetime I have watched “white flight” result in deteriorating neighborhoods with infrastructure maintenance ignored due to that deterioration and crime rates soar. Moving for economic reasons seems rational to me but…how do you escape a Pandemic by moving?

    When will we see the economist’s theories?

  2. I remember when there was an exodus from Kessler-Meridian as they headed to Carmel. The logic I heard: Those big old houses with single pane windows were hard to heat and Heating Oil was up to 69 Cents / Gallon. I looked at a couple of GREAT houses for $49,900
    in the mid to late 70’s. I just checked one of them. NOW it is worth 775,000. It all keeps changing.

  3. I listen to tech savvy workers who see the pandemic as a new guidance on using the internet as a driving force for work from home.
    Cities once were the center also for manufacturing jobs but the political aspect is that the Democrats are more pro business in regards to no longer wanting to implement tariffs keeping jobs here. The previous administration did so against the pro business, anti tariff platform of the Republican party.
    Cities are over next four years may see an insurgence of manufacturing jobs leaving the US.
    What is extremely alarming is that the Homeland security agencies are finding that chips made in China are sending data of new technological advancements to China so they can steal our intellectual property and develop and manufacture items that our cities should be privileged to. The current administration is relaxing these restrictions.
    I agree with this article whole this article whole heartedly, I see that many the current administration is giving jobs that should be inherited by the black community away to a new influx of immigrants that this country at this piint doesn’t need. There are too many unemployed and the burgeoning nationsl debt isnt a concern by any one holding office it appears.
    We lack leadership and strategy to face the next four years

  4. “I listen to tech savvy workers who see the pandemic as a new guidance on using the internet as a driving force for work from home.”

    John; can “work from home” be considered an oxymoron?

  5. How can many people afford to move to big cities, unless they are high-paying jobs, and can afford enormous housing costs?

  6. It seems as if it might just be cyclical. In the 30s and 40s people were moving to the big cities for jobs. This was reversed in the 60s and 70s when we had people fleeing the inner cities for the burbs and their all white enclaves of McMansions. For the past 20 years, we’ve seen revitalizations of downtown areas as people flocked to urban areas for lifestyle changes. Now begins another great migration to the burbs. It might be pandemic related, but it’s too early to tell. Let’s check back in another 10 years or so.

  7. The housing market is a market nonetheless. Many variables go into the decision to move to another location, but as Pascal points out, money or finances is the key driver. Some folks are just getting priced out of the markets and need to find housing that fits their budget.

    I’ve seen lots of young people complain about banks as they apply for mortgages to reduce their monthly expenses. They are being told they cannot afford a mortgage payment of $700 because it’s too big a percentage of their income. Meanwhile, they are paying rent of $1,200 a month. Banks must be using all that easy money for gambling instead of allowing it to multiply.

    Or, they also own or loan to rental property owners. 😉

    I think the pandemic is just one more variable decision-makers are faced with, leading to moving where life is more enjoyable and affordable.

    If we are lucky, folks leaving their high-priced Covid ridden markets will come to Indiana for cheap living and low-paying jobs. At least we’ll see housing values increase. 😉

  8. Kind of reminds me of what happened in Italy. Their birth rates went down and there was a resistance for immigration! Eventually, they opened up their borders to replenish their cities populations. They also gave away land to immigrants if they were working it and contributing to the economy. Italian stonemasons took immigrants under their wings to teach them the art of Italian stone work and tile making. And, how to become vineyard owners and workers. Things that were only done by Italians, and, for a long time, there was a huge resistance to bringing in immigrants to learn these trades.

    Immigrants will always migrate to the cities because of the infrastructure and camaraderie of other immigrants that speak their specific language. When you are extremely conservative or anti liberal concerning immigrants and immigration, you’re always going to lose population numbers in the cities. Systemic racism will drive a certain portion of people out of the cities also, but cities are huge draws for immigrants and the young. Immigrants and the young bring vitality, look at AOC, how she had risen to the occasion assisting those in texas! And then look at Ted Cruz and how he reacted to the situation in his home state of texas. One worked to raise money and offer assistance to those people in a state not her own, the other one, ran away because he didn’t want to be bothered. Says a lot about conservative White society doesn’t it?

  9. My wife and I left Los Angeles to build our own house in rural Texas outside Austin. Austin’s population was spreading like a Petri dish culture. We watched the automobile traffic there go from awful to gridlock. McMansions sprouted up like bluebonnets. We left rural Texas and bought an 11th floor condo in Denver with a spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains. In the three years we’ve been here, we’ve watched multi-story condos rise from the ground as the property prices rise with them. The city’s adopted bird is the construction crane. Our good friend, one of the most successful real estate agents in the area is busier than the proverbial one-armed paperhanger. Last year was her best year EVER. She says that the flood of immigrants to Denver come from Texas, California and New York urban areas.

    Cleveland’s population in 1968, the year I left for San Diego, was just over 900,000. Then the auto industry was allowed to take their work to Asia, Mexico and Africa for $0.10 on the wage dollar. Today, Cleveland’s population is still around 400,000. Detroit is another example of corporate decision influence on population size and mobility. BTW, when I moved to Dan Diego, the population was just under 700,000. Now, its sprawl has extended northward toward L.A. and tops 2 million. Of course, San Diego has some of the best year-round weather in the world. Property prices are through the roof (sorry for the pun) while wages remain at about 25% lower than L.A.’s.

    It’s a complex subject to be sure.

  10. patmcc, Part of the flight from Meridian-Kessler was fueled by cheaper alternatives, plus I think once you get into that income range, people still love that mortgage exemption tax break. Also for some reason Americans hate to spend money on maintenance. Over the years I have looked at a few of those houses on Meridian Street, and I am amazed that how could a house go almost 100 years without an overhaul of the wiring, plumbing, insulation and installation of storm windows. Todd Smekens, most people don’t realize that if you have a $700/month house payment, that you will need to be setting aside $500/ a month for the long term maintenance.

    What I don’t understand is what makes commercial property, especially, attractive to investors that don’t seem like they care what happens to it. I have seen so many examples of property that was purchased, the rent doubled and a successful business moved out, and then it sat empty for 5 or 10 years until deferred maintenance forced the owner to demolish the building.

    There seem like there are so many things built into our tax laws just to kill cites.

  11. Like Sheila, I like the amenities of urban life but like the world of lawns and gardens as well. When I think of the in and out exodus from urban to rural and rural to urban lives I am reminded of accordians, whose energy to perform depends upon loss of one to energy of another, and it seems to me that such moves at base depend upon where the action is. Thus we see the steady emptying of rural and small town venues into the cities but with sporadic countervailing populations leaving the cities to become farmers.

    The current (if not massive) movement from cities to rural surroundings can be explained by a redefinition of “where the action is.” One need not go downtown when he/she can “work from home,” so one can garden and “work” and never leave the premises. Even groceries can be delivered. Caveat > One must not move so far from where the action is that teleworking is unavailable.

    Other reasons to move include skyrocketing prices for housing. Thus one can sell his/her/their brownstone, make a bundle, move 20 miles away, and telework. There is also racism. Minorities tend to congregate in urban areas and racists may want to leave town to avoid having their children go to school with “those others.” Poor public transportation may also have a role in the exodus, as well as nightly stories of murder on TV, among others left unmentioned here.

    In this age of innovation who can know when the accordian will dictate other reasons for our population to disperse? I haven’t the faintest. . .

  12. There have been several things coming to a head – particularly in bay area and NYC.

    1. High real estate costs
    2. High taxes
    3. the SALT deduction change
    4. Some crazy regulations
    5. Covid

    The big recent changes were the SALT deduction change and Covid.

    Covid will sort itself out, but the SALT deduction change is a tough one. Reversing it, as Biden has vowed to do, would be regressive. It gave large tax deductions to wealthy people who live in high tax areas. Restoring tax breaks for wealthy people has obvious problems.

    Nonetheless, cities are going to be in trouble if wealthy people flee. The SALT tax change was sudden and was designed to do damage to NYC.

    Politically, it may help turn some red states blue (Florida, Texas).

  13. Here’s my theory. Things never stop changing. The rate of change may never peak.

    Migration within each country and between countries will increase but the cause will be changing weather and sea level and related threats like wildfires and the resultant mudslides and storms every year for many decades. It seems less likely to be caused by pandemics to me because we have added readily tailorable mRNA vaccines to our body of knowledge.

  14. I left New Jersey, not from a city, but a suburb of N.Y.C, upon retiring, in 2019. We had already bought a place in Florida, for eventual retirement, almost on the spur of the moment, some 12 years earlier, to be near an old H.S. friend.
    We could not have afforded to retire in central N.J., either in our previously owned home, nor in the rentals of the prior 5 years.
    I know of no one who is planning to move away from a particularly Covid infested place to one supposedly less so. That includes my personal, and cyber, friends.
    Things are, indeed, complex, and I like the Joni Mitchell meme.
    The Covid relief bill that Biden just signed, may wind up having an impact on peoples’ living strategies, but it will be some time before that comes to pass, if it ever does.

  15. If people can work from their homes and don’t have to go downtown for their jobs, I’m not convinced they’ll choose to live in the city, especially downtown. Of course, unlike Sheila, I’m at heart a country boy.

  16. Movement or migration has been governed by jobs. Back in the mid 1970’s I worked for large financial institutions. If you were at all desiring to move-up, you had to be mobile. At one time I heard IBM meant: I have been Moved. There was the other danger of being downsized.

    I grew-up in the South Chicago area, and observed the migration of southern whites up North to work in the steel mills and bringing Jim Crow attitudes with them.

    Eventually, I became a work at home type. My big office of 130-150 people shrank over the years as typists and file clerks were no longer needed.

    I felt a social loss working at home. Gone was the camaraderie of going out to lunch with co-workers and those football and basket ball pools.

  17. History often names plague and famine for the dying of ancient cities. Climate change sometimes as well. Time will tell.

  18. Count me among the people that hate to move, but I have done so, and will have to again, for the sixth time – and move means distance. Six states on both coasts and the Midwest. Every city had something to recommend it and every time, I did not want to leave, but it was for school, fellowships, or jobs.

    Another reason people move is housing costs. My eldest niece left the Palo Alto area, after her fellowship ended, because even with both her and her husband both working, it wouldn’t be affordable.

    As for New York, I’ve been contacted about working there – but the salary wouldn’t make up for the cost of living.

    As for remote work, I’ve done it (I am in IT now), but only one employer agreed to it long term. I have spent the last year working remotely, but my current employer is assuming that I will move and go into the office. That will mean another cross-country move.

  19. I worry about the impact of distance working on downtowns and commercial office space everywhere. Now that many employers and employees have learned how to work from home, many employers may decide to lower their square footage, utility bills, parking expenses for employees, and secretarial support. I fear the economic upheaval will be with us for a long time.

  20. Every time we’ve moved, it’s been because of the job. There is no job security anywhere. So if you don’t continue to enhance your skills, you will be either outsourced or furloughed. Or your job eliminated. This has happened to us every other year for 15 years. It’s exhausting.

  21. In case you are presuming that new migration/population movement statistics are excitedly new, consider that in 1961, in my social studies class in college, national statistics showed that one out of three Americans every year moved their residence. Statistically, that meant that every three years the ENTIRE population of the United States moved somewhere new. My guess is that statistic has not changed much now or in the 60 + years in-between. Reasons for moving may change according to where the action and life-grievances are but I doubt if the rate of moving has changed much. In our 1961 class, the two most popular conclusions regarding the cause of all the moving were 1) People are not the homebodies they are presumed to be, and 2)Transfers mandated by businesses. We also realized that someone like me, who lived in 18 different places during 6 years of college, tended to tilt the statistics.

Comments are closed.