(May 2006) A new Census Bureau report says that Americans are increasingly moving out of many large U.S. cities and those cities’ inner suburbs, pushing into smaller urban areas and new outer-ring suburbs that were until recently largely forests and farms.

The report—Domestic Net Migration in the United States: 2000 to 2004—also shows that people in the Northeast and Midwest continue their decades-long pattern of moving to southern states such as Florida, although that trend has slowed since the 1990s. In addition, migration from California to other parts of the western United States isn’t nearly as heavy as it was during the last decade (see Table 1).

Table 1
Total and Average Annual Domestic Net Migration for U.S. Regions and Divisions: 1990-2000

Total number
Avg. annual rate*
New England
Middle Atlantic
East North Central
West North Central
South Atlantic
East South Central
West South Central

*Per every 1,000 residents.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Estimates (2004).

“A bounceback is what you’d expect because the movement in the 1990s to the South and out of California was so strong and significant,” says Jeffrey Yankow, an associate professor of economics at Furman University who researches labor mobility.

But the trend away from large cities such as New York and Chicago as well as inner suburbs such as Arlington and Fairfax counties in Virginia and DuPage County in Illinois seems inexorable, says Ken Johnson, professor of sociology at Loyola University-Chicago. “I don’t see anything that’s going to stop it,” Johnson says.

The New Far-Flung Suburbs

The report, which includes the movements of all people who have been in the United States since 2000—U.S.-born, foreign-born, and undocumented immigrants—shows that 18 of the 25 largest metro statistical areas had average annual net outmigration between 2000 and 2004.

Outflow was heaviest in the New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco/Oakland metro areas, each of which averaged net outmigration of more than 60,000 a year. But what’s different now, says Johnson, is that the move away from close-in suburbs—not just central cities—into counties 40 or more miles away.

Table 2
Highest Average Annual Numbers and Rates of Net Domestic Outmigration for Counties, 2000–2004

Average #
Los Angeles, CA
Cook, IL
Kings, NY
Queens, NY
Santa Clara, CA
Dallas, TX
Miami-Dade, FL
Wayne, MI
Alameda, CA
Harris, TX

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Estimates Program (2004)

“The growth pattern is like a wave,” Johnson says. “People are moving out from urban counties like Cook [which contains Chicago] to the inner ring of suburbs, but people are also moving from those suburbs to the next ring of suburbs in even greater numbers.” (See Table 2 for those counties averaging the most net outmigration over the period.)

Cook County alone lost 500,000 between 2000 and 2005—175,000 of those from suburban Cook. Meanwhile, Will County, which is on the edge of the Chicago metro area, gained an average of over 20,000 people a year. “500,000 is already as big as the net domestic migration loss for Cook for all of the 1990s,” says Johnson.

In California, this outmigration from traditional urban centers is stretching well inland—all the way to western Nevada from San Francisco-Oakland, and heavily into Riverside and San Bernardino counties from Los Angeles to the east. Like Cook County, Los Angeles County alone lost an average of almost 95,000 people a year between 2000 and 2004. And traditional California bedroom communities such as those in Orange County now have substantial outflows.

“For half a century, Orange County was an icon in terms of rapidly growing suburbanization,” says Calvin Beale, senior demographer for the Economic Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Now, it’s spinning off almost 23,000 people a year.”

Yankow says that housing prices are an important dynamic behind this deepening trend. “Young single people and empty-nesters are pushing up housing prices in cities, and households with larger families are going to places where they can get better value,” he says. “Most people would say that’s a good thing for cities. Plus, people can keep their jobs in the city and commute to them.”

But Johnson cautions that those flocking to cities are bringing less income than those who are leaving, despite the continued renewal of urban housing stock in many of these downtowns.

“If you look at the data for the 10 biggest U.S. cities, the only demographic groups that show net inmigration are whites in their 20s—who don’t stay very long, generally—and Hispanics in their late teens to early 30s,” says Johnson. “In these migration exchanges, Cook County, for example, loses $1.25 billion dollars yearly in income. Now, the city’s income base is huge [more than $125 billion annually as of Census 2000], but the trend is there, and it will eventually have implications.”

Some Smaller Cities Gaining in Population—But Can They Handle It?

Those fleeing urbanites are also settling in smaller cities across the United States. According to the report, 21 of the country’s 25 largest micropolitan areas—areas with populations between 10,000 and 49,999 and that have strong commuting networks with neighboring counties—had net in-migration between 2000 and 2004.

These areas range from bedroom communities such as Stroudsburg, Penn., and Torrington, Conn., to retirement communities such Lake Havasu City-Kingman, Ariz., to Traverse City, Mich., Hilton Head, S.C., and other recreational hotspots. Johnson thinks that this growth will continue—especially to recreation-oriented cities—as the baby boom reaches retirement age. And he says that inflow could overwhelm those communities

“There’s the potential for a perfect storm demographically there,” Johnson says. “We’re going to have 75 million people thinking about where they’re going to live next, and that influx is going to put a lot of stress on counties that are attractive because of environmental amenities.” He adds that Grand Traverse County (which contains Traverse City) already suffers from traffic congestion.

The South and West Continue to Gain, But at Reduced Rates

In addition, traditional migration patterns to the South and to Mountain states continued between 2000 and 2004, but at a weaker pace. While both the Northeast and Midwest lost people during the period, only the Midwest showed accelerated outmigration—losing almost as many people (almost 645,000) between 2000 and 2004 as it had in the 1990s.

The South continued to be the primary destination for migrants within the United States, although the pace of inflow has moderated over the last five years. Another change since the 1990s: Net Southern inmigration is almost exclusively confined to Southern Atlantic states such as Florida and Virginia. The other parts of the South showed almost no net immigration between 2000 and 2004, a steep decline from the 1990s.

“The areas that have net in-migration are attracting significant streams of retirees,” says Johnson. “We’re going to see this trend becoming more pronounced as the front edge of the baby boom decides where it’s going to live in retirement.”

The report also details how migration patterns in the West have shifted. The longstanding pattern of Californians moving to states such as Colorado and Utah seems to be abating: Californian out-migration fell from 221,000 a year in the 1990s to 99,000 annually after 2000. Meanwhile, net in-migration to the Mountain states (which include Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada) is down 50,000 per year, to an average of about 131,000 annually.

On the state level, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada had the highest annualized amount of net in-migration during the 2000-04 period, while New York, California, and Illinois had the largest net out-migration (see figure). Nevada had the highest annualized net migration rate of any state—a net of 23.3 people moved to Nevada for every 1,000 people already there.

New York (-9.6 for every 1,000 residents) and Massachusetts (-6.6 for every 1,000 residents) had the highest annual rates of net outmigration, although the District of Columbia lost 18.1 for every 1,000 residents annually.

Highest and Lowest Average Annual Levels of Net Domestic Migration for Selected States, 2000-2004

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Estimates (2004).

Yankow sees these patterns as continuing to reflect the longstanding transition of the United States from a manufacturing economy to a service-oriented economy—a transition that has depended on people following jobs.

“The economic drivers have always been jobs, and jobs also get created where people go as well,” he says. “These findings reinforce the fact that we have a very, very mobile labor force.”

Robert Lalasz is senior editor at the Population Reference Bureau.


U.S. Census Bureau, Domestic Net Migration in the United States: 2000 to 2004 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2006).