Americans keep moving to high-opportunity cities in the sun belt, new census data confirms

Essay By
Learn more about J.H. Cullum Clark.
J.H. Cullum Clark
Director, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative
George W. Bush Institute

Census data shows Americans are still moving to relatively affordable, growth-friendly places, especially Sun Belt suburbs.

Americans migrated in massive numbers to large Sun Belt metro areas and fast-growing suburban cities between 2021 and 2022, according to newly released Census data. These patterns reflect the age-old inclination of Americans to seek out places offering good economic opportunities and affordable quality of life – and run counter to early press reports on the data.

Media reporting on the Census Bureau’s latest release suggests that pandemic-era demographic shifts started to reverse last year, with a return to core cities on the East Coast and elsewhere. The population of Manhattan island grew slightly between July 2021 and July 2022, for instance. But a closer look shows two key demographic trends remain intact: migration from large coastal and Midwest metros to the Sun Belt and movement from core urban areas to suburbs.

Some core counties – like Manhattan’s New York County – eked out modest growth over the past year, but the main reason wasn’t inbound migration from elsewhere in the United States. It was the fact that immigration rebounded from depressed pandemic levels, when emergency restrictions caused a large fall-off in immigrant arrivals.

Booming Sun Belt metros

The top 10 destinations for absolute population growth over the last year are all Sun Belt metros. Four are in Texas: Dallas-Fort Worth (#1), Houston (#2), Austin (#6), and San Antonio (#9). Three are in Florida: Orlando (#5), Tampa (#7), and Jacksonville (#10). Third-ranked Atlanta, Georgia; fourth-ranked Phoenix, Arizona; and eighth-ranked Charlotte, North Carolina, round out the list. All 10 ranked among America’s fastest-growing metros from 2010 to 2020. And all 10 score high in a George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative study of opportunity and economic mobility in U.S. cities.

Meanwhile, the 10 metros that lost the most people over the past year are all places where population stagnated between 2010 and 2020. These include five on the coasts: New York City, which saw by far the largest decline; Los Angeles; San Francisco; San Jose; and Philadelphia. This group also includes Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and New Orleans.

The same pattern holds for net inbound migration rates from elsewhere in the United States, measured as a percentage of 2021 population. Among America’s 100 largest metros, five of the top 10 for net domestic in-migration rates over the last year are in Florida (North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota, Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville); two are in Texas (Austin and San Antonio), two are in other Southeastern states (Knoxville, Tennessee, and Charleston, South Carolina), and one is in the Mountain states (Boise, Idaho). The 10 metros with highest net out-migration rates include New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose.

Contrary to stories emphasizing slowdowns in the Sun Belt, geographic mobility retreated modestly across the country from the extraordinary pace of the first full pandemic year, 2020 to 2021. Existing U.S. home sales, for instance, were down 18% in 2022 compared with 2021, reflecting the surge in mortgage interest rates. It was also inevitable that long-distance moves would diminish somewhat as Americans partly returned to offices from the COVID-19 work-from-home experiment, which untethered millions of workers from traditional workplaces.

But long-term trends generally accelerated after the pandemic started, including over the last year. Seven of the 10 metros that grew fastest from 2020 to 2021 saw even larger gains between 2021 and 2022. The top metros for in-migration over the past decade mostly saw faster inflows last year than they did over the decade from 2010 to 2020. And almost all large metros with net outflows over the last decade saw net out-migration accelerate last year relative to 2010-2020 levels.

Very few metros experienced reversals in the direction of net migration last year. Only the Columbus, Ohio, and Madison, Wisconsin, metros experienced net in-migration last year after net out-migration the prior year.

To the suburbs

America’s movement from core to suburban cities continued as well. Within the 50 largest metros, the total population living in core urban counties rose only very slightly last year after falling sharply from 2020 to 2021. Suburban counties in the top 50 metros, meantime, grew almost as fast as they did the prior year. And counties larger than 50,000 people but in smaller metros – ranking below the top 50 – experienced no slowdown at all, growing faster than the other two groups in both years.

One pattern in all three groups of counties was the same: a rapid acceleration of preexisting migration trends during the first pandemic year followed by a modest slowdown last year. In core counties of the top 50 metros, net domestic out-migration rates rose more than sixfold during 2020-2021 from their average pace between 2010 and 2020, then fell back by a third over the past year. Net inflows to suburban and small-metro counties similarly soared during the first COVID-19 year and then retreated modestly last year but remained well above 2010-2020 levels.

As for immigration, newly arriving immigrants continued to choose suburban destinations much more than they have for most of America’s history. In the top 50 metros, 46% of immigrants settled in suburban counties while 54% chose core counties, consistent with the patterns of the last decade.

The widely reported slowdown in suburban growth also obscures a sharp divide between suburban counties in booming Sun Belt metros and those in slow-growing coastal and Midwest metros. All of the top 25 counties over 50,000 people for net domestic in-migration rates last year are suburban or small-metro counties in the Sun Belt. Ten of these are suburban counties in the Texas Triangle metros of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. Roughly half of the 25 top-ranking destination counties saw faster in-migration last year than they experienced between 2010 and 2020.

On the other hand, 10 of the counties seeing the largest net out-migration rates are suburban counties in the New York, Washington, San Francisco, and New Orleans metros. Seven are core counties of slow-growing or shrinking metros.

The Census data also highlights two other notable patterns. First, three large metros that experienced net inflows over the last decade but suffered significant civil unrest in 2020 and 2021 – Seattle, Portland, and Minneapolis-St. Paul – flipped over to large net outflows in both 2021 and 2022. This turnaround shows that public safety, like job opportunities and affordability, heavily influences people’s location choices.

Second, last year saw substantial deceleration in five Mountain and Desert state metros that had been growing rapidly in prior years: Phoenix, Boise, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder, Colorado. In-migration rates remained relatively high in the Phoenix, Boise, and Colorado Springs metros, but turned negative in Denver and Boulder. One probable explanation for these slowdowns: Each of these metros has experienced exceptionally fast home price appreciation, so last year’s spike in mortgage rates may have had an outsized effect on affordability and thus in-migration rates.

Americans are still moving to relatively affordable, growth friendly places, especially Sun Belt suburbs.