Midwest Economy Blog

U.S. Migration Patterns Before and After the Start of the Covid-19 Pandemic

July 7, 2022

In this blog post, our primary aim is to examine whether and how moving patterns between states, metropolitan areas, and other locations across the U.S. have changed since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Using migration data from United Van Lines,1 we compare migration patterns in 2018 and 2019, before the pandemic started within the U.S., with those in 2020 and 2021, after the pandemic began.2

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended everyday life in numerous ways. Lifestyle changes, particularly shifts in work–life balance, have gotten much greater emphasis since the pandemic started. One of the most significant changes affecting work–life balance has been the decision of some employers to let their employees work from remote locations. Another noteworthy change is that since the start of the pandemic, over 30 million people have quit their jobs, searching for better opportunities or leaving the labor force altogether; this economic trend is often referred to as the “Great Resignation.” In addition, an increasing number of people no longer want to live in densely populated cities and have sought out places where they can spread out more—whether to satisfy their work–life balance or to meet their retirement needs.3 These broad changes in employment and shifts in personal preferences have led to changes in moving decisions. There has been a lot written about moves during the pandemic; for instance, figure 1 from a March 2021 Cleveland Fed report shows that there’s been a surge of moves out of large urban areas and into less costly areas (likely offering more space) since early 2020.

Prior to the pandemic, notable patterns of migration already existed. With the aging of the baby boomer population, many older people were already moving to their respective retirement destinations. Some of those destinations were attractive because of a warmer climate or the relative proximity to family. Other destinations allowed baby boomers to retire gradually—e.g., by working at reduced hours or in different fields than they had been in.4 In addition, research, such as this October 2019 Federal Reserve Board working paper, has shown a long-run decline in migration rates for all age demographics across the U.S.

Was the migration of people during the Covid-19 pandemic a continuation of pre-pandemic trends, or was it reflective of new permanent shifts in household lifestyles? And did the run-ups in equity prices and home values during the pandemic allow for an increase in retirements and subsequent migration? In this blog post, we address these and related questions by exploring the movements of people before and during the Covid-19 pandemic, with a focus on Seventh Federal Reserve District states and metro areas. Specifically, we study migration patterns before and after the pandemic’s start with data provided by United Van Lines.

Net domestic migration: Before and during the Covid-19 pandemic

United Van Lines is a company that is a major provider of moving services in the United States (as well as Canada). Since 1977, United Van Lines has tracked annual migration patterns on a state-by-state basis for the 48 contiguous states and Washington, DC. The company collects information on the number of household moves that it supports, as well as the origins and destinations of the households it serves. Because United Van Lines is a moving company with drivers and other employees, we expect that its migration data will reflect more moves by families than those by younger people or college students (who might rent trucks themselves to move or have a relatively lower accumulation of belongings, not requiring professional moving services when relocating). We will share information on interstate and intercity moves (as well as other types of moves)—with a focus on the states and metro areas within the Federal Reserve’s Seventh District. To frame the patterns we observe for Seventh District states and metro areas, we note that the number of moves nationally before the Covid-19 pandemic started was greater than the number of moves after the pandemic began. Indeed, the total number of state-to-state moves was 15.1% lower in the pandemic-era period than in the pre-pandemic period.

Relative to the migration data available from the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) and the U.S. Census Bureau, the United Van Lines data are available more quickly and cover a different population. More specifically, the United Van Lines data provide us a perspective on the moving patterns of those individuals who hire a moving company, while the IRS data cover all tax filers and the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey (ACS) data cover samples that are quite small for some metro areas. Comparisons of migration patterns across these different data sources are out of scope of this post’s analysis.

State-to-state moves

When looking at the data on state-to-state moves provided by United Van Lines, we notice some interesting trends. Figure 1 shows that the top seven national moving patterns before and after the start of the pandemic are the same, but the rankings differ by period. Six of the top seven moving patterns involve California. Eighteen of the top 20 moving patterns involve California or Florida, which is reflective of those states’ large populations.

1. Moves between states, by total number and ranking, 2018–19 versus 2020–21

Note: The rankings are based on all moves between all states.
Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from United Van Lines.
Moving from Moving to Total 2018–19 total 2020–21 total 2018–19 rank 2020–21 rank
California Texas 7,554 3,814 3,740 1 1
California Washington 5,600 3,131 2,469 2 2
Texas California 4,100 2,358 1,742 3 7
Virginia California 3,996 2,240 1,756 4 6
California Florida 4,447 2,197 2,250 5 3
California Virginia 3,890 2,016 1,874 6 5
New York Florida 4,159 1,994 2,165 7 4

Figure 2 shows the percentage of state-to-state moves that are inbound and outbound for the five states with the highest number of inbound moves before the pandemic. Of these five states, only California was not already a majority inbound state prior to the pandemic. Excluding California, the other four states in figure 2 remained predominantly inbound states after the pandemic started, although Washington saw an increase in its share of outbound moves.

2. States with highest number of pre-pandemic inbound moves: Inbound and outbound shares of total interstate moves of each state, 2018–19 versus 2020–21

Note: All values are in percent.
Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from United Van Lines.
Top inbound states 2018–19 2020–21
Moving to Moving from Moving to Moving from
Florida 57.2 42.8 61.7 38.3
Texas 52.9 47.1 54.5 45.5
California 43.8 56.2 40.6 59.4
Washington 56.3 43.7 51.4 48.6
North Carolina 56.9 43.1 59.5 40.5

Figure 3 shows that state-to-state moving trends before and during the pandemic were more mixed for the five states with the highest number of outbound moves prior to the pandemic’s onset. California and Illinois were majority outbound states before the pandemic, and their respective shares of outbound moves grew after the pandemic started. Virginia stayed almost evenly split in its shares of inbound and outbound moves between the two periods. In contrast, Florida and Texas (as shown in both figures 2 and 3) had their shares of inbound moves rise. From additional analysis of the United Van Lines data, we observe that the largest increases in outbound shares during pandemic times relative to pre-pandemic times were for Washington and Nevada; these two states’ largest metro areas (Seattle and Las Vegas) were among the hardest hit economically by the pandemic.

3. States with highest number of pre-pandemic outbound moves: Inbound and outbound shares of total interstate moves of each state, 2018–19 versus 2020–21

Note: All values are in percent.
Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from United Van Lines.
Top outbound states 2018–19 2020–21
Moving to Moving from Moving to Moving from
California 43.8 56.2 40.6 59.4
Texas 52.9 47.1 54.5 45.5
Florida 57.2 42.8 61.7 38.3
Virginia 48.7 51.3 48.9 51.1
Illinois 35.3 64.7 33.6 66.4

Moving patterns involving Seventh District states are especially interesting as population growth in the Midwest has slowed over the past decade. Figure 4 shows the top six state-to-state moving patterns that involved at least one Seventh District state. The two most significant patterns—moves from Illinois to California and to Florida—were the same in the periods before and after the pandemic started, but their order flipped, with Florida becoming the relatively more popular destination after the pandemic began.

4. Interstate moves involving Seventh District states, by total number and ranking, 2018–19 versus 2020–21

Notes: The Seventh Federal Reserve District states are Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The rankings are based on all moves between states involving at least one Seventh District state.
Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from United Van Lines.
Moving from Moving to Total 2018–19 total 2020–21 total 2018–19 rank 2020–21 rank
Illinois California 2,611 1,403 1,208 1 2
Illinois Florida 2,880 1,336 1,544 2 1
Illinois Texas 2,138 1,137 1,001 3 3
California Illinois 1,758 953 805 4 4
Illinois Arizona 1,451 761 690 5 5
Michigan Florida 1,346 714 632 6 6

Figure 4 reveals that the top six state-to-state moving patterns involving at least one Seventh District state included Illinois or Michigan. Looking further down the rankings of such moving patterns (not shown), we would highlight a few other notable patterns. The number of moves from Illinois to North Carolina picked up during the pandemic, as did the number of moves from Illinois to Tennessee. Additionally, the pattern of moves between Michigan and California reversed between the two time periods—i.e., there were more moves to California from Michigan before the pandemic, whereas there were more moves to Michigan from California during the pandemic era. Also, for all five Seventh District states, the top three outbound destinations (though varying in order by District state) were California, Florida, and Texas.

Figure 5 shows the inbound and outbound shares of total state-to-state moves involving each of the Seventh District states before and during the pandemic. Over the entire sample period of 2018–21, there were almost 15,000 more outbound moves than inbound moves for all Seventh District states. Moreover, notably, the inbound and outbound shares of total interstate moves for each individual Seventh District state were similar between the two periods of 2018–19 and 2020–21, showing that pandemic-era moving trends generally mirrored pre-pandemic moving trends: Across these two periods, Illinois and Michigan continued to be majority outbound states, while the three other states continued to be almost evenly split between being net inbound and outbound states. So, despite the broad changes in employment and shifts in personal preferences that we mentioned earlier, the pandemic’s impact on interstate migration patterns involving Seventh District states has not been dramatic.

5. Inbound and outbound shares of total interstate moves for each Seventh District state, 2018–19 versus 2020–21

Note: All values are in percent.
Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from United Van Lines.
Seventh District states 2018–19 2020–21
Moving to Moving from Moving to Moving from
Illinois 35.3 64.7 33.6 66.4
Indiana 50.6 49.4 50.7 49.3
Iowa 47.6 52.4 50.0 50.0
Michigan 42.5 57.5 44.7 55.3
Wisconsin 48.2 51.8 49.2 50.8

Figure 6 shows moving patterns exclusively between pairs of Seventh District states (to be clear, no intrastate moves are represented). This gives us a picture of how people are moving between District states, apart from migration patterns involving non-District states. Specifically, for each pair of District states, this figure displays the share of inbound moves to one state from another relative to total moves between that pair in pre-pandemic and pandemic-era periods. Organized by the destination state, figure 6 shows that Illinois is a clear majority outbound state—i.e., on net, more people have headed out of Illinois than into it—when it comes to moves involving another District state during both periods. Other noteworthy moving patterns show that the only District state with consistently more outbound moves from Indiana than inbound moves to that state during both periods was Iowa. Also, the only District state that had more outbound moves from Iowa than inbound moves to that state during both periods was Wisconsin. In other words, there are consistently more moves from Indiana to Iowa and from Iowa to Wisconsin than in the opposite direction. According to figure 6, the largest differences in moving patterns between the periods before and after the start of the pandemic are as follows: 1) Wisconsin becoming a majority inbound state for moves involving Indiana (see seventh row of data) and 2) Michigan almost becoming a majority inbound state for moves involving Iowa after being the clear majority outbound state in that pair before the pandemic (see eighth row of data).

6. Shares of total moves between pairs of Seventh District states, 2018–19 versus 2020–21

Note: All values are in percent.
Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from United Van Lines.
Moving to Moving from 2018–19 2020–21 Moving to Moving from 2018–19 2020–21
Illinois Indiana 31.6 27.6 Indiana Illinois 68.4 72.4
Illinois Iowa 37.5 38.0 Iowa Illinois 62.5 62.0
Illinois Michigan 36.1 33.9 Michigan Illinois 63.9 66.1
Illinois Wisconsin 27.0 27.1 Wisconsin Illinois 73.0 72.9
Indiana Iowa 42.0 43.4 Iowa Indiana 58.0 56.6
Indiana Michigan 58.3 53.1 Michigan Indiana 41.7 46.9
Indiana Wisconsin 54.4 42.7 Wisconsin Indiana 45.6 57.3
Iowa Michigan 61.5 51.0 Michigan Iowa 38.5 49.0
Iowa Wisconsin 40.9 36.5 Wisconsin Iowa 59.1 63.5
Michigan Wisconsin 41.1 43.8 Wisconsin Michigan 58.9 56.2

Moves from metro to nonmetro areas

Looking at moves from or to a specific metro area in the United Van Lines data, we note that the two most popular moves involved relocating from a county within a large metro area—specifically, from a county within the New York City or Chicagoland area—to a county not within a metro area.5 In general, the number of moves out of metro areas to nonmetro areas increased in the pandemic era (despite the decline in overall moves). In fact, such moves involving other major urban areas were up in 2020–21 compared with those in 2018–19, including moves to nonmetro areas from the metro areas of Los Angeles, Seattle, Phoenix, Denver, San Francisco, San Antonio, and St. Louis.

7. Top moves between metro and nonmetro areas, 2018–19 versus 2020–21

Note: Counties are determined to be in a metro area or nonmetro area based on information from the National Bureau of Economic Research; see note 5 for further details.
Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from United Van Lines.
Moving from Moving to 2018–19 total 2020–21 total
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA Nonmetro county 922 1,106
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI Nonmetro county 822 843
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA Nonmetro county 650 689
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Nonmetro county 664 644
San Diego-Carlsbad, CA Nonmetro county 638 623
Nonmetro county Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 682 513
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA Nonmetro county 525 560

Much has been made about the droves of people who have moved out of large metro areas (such as the New York City area) to smaller but growing metro areas since the pandemic began. For instance, the number of pandemic-era moves from the New York City area to the metro areas of Miami, Charlotte, Orlando, or Tampa were all greater than the number of pre-pandemic moves from the New York City area to each one of those metro areas, according to our analysis of United Van Lines data. Focusing on Seventh District metro areas, we find that Chicagoland was consistently a majority outbound metro area to other locations, irrespective of the pandemic’s start, for those who used United Van Lines’ services. The top destinations for former Chicagoland residents were the metro areas of Phoenix, Dallas, Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York City during the entire sample period of 2018–21. During the pandemic, metro areas that saw an increase in former Chicagoland residents included those of Tampa, Austin, Miami, Nashville, and Orlando. Similarly, Metro Detroit was a majority outbound metro area before and after the pandemic began, though it saw more inbound moves from Chicagoland and the New York City area during the pandemic era. Elsewhere within the Seventh District, Indianapolis and Milwaukee were also chiefly outbound metro areas over the entire sample period. That said, relatively speaking, during the pandemic, the Indianapolis metro area saw more inbound moves from the metro areas of Los Angeles and New York City, while the Milwaukee metro area saw more inbound moves from Chicagoland.

Figure 8 presents data on all moves involving major metro areas of the Seventh District (except intra-metro-area moves). It shows that Chicagoland and Metro Detroit were clearly majority outbound metro areas, while the Milwaukee area was marginally an outbound one, throughout the sample period. In contrast, the Indianapolis and Des Moines metro areas had their respective inbound moves slightly outnumbering their respective outbound ones. Lastly, as with Seventh District states (figure 5), there wasn’t a great amount of variation in the shares of inbound and outbound moves for Seventh District metro areas before and after the pandemic started.

8. Inbound and outbound shares of total moves for each major Seventh District metro area, 2018–19 versus 2020–21

Notes: Total moves indicates moves to or from other metro areas or nonmetro areas in or out of the Seventh Federal Reserve District, but excludes intra-metro-area moves. All values are in percent.
Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from United Van Lines.
Metro areas 2018–19 2020–21
Moving to Moving from Moving to Moving from
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 34.5 65.5 32.1 67.9
Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA 52.7 47.3 54.3 45.7
Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI 38.2 61.8 38.4 61.6
Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson, IN 51.9 48.1 52.1 47.9
Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 45.9 54.1 43.9 56.1

The United Van Lines moving data shed some light on moving patterns before and during the pandemic. Popular moving patterns between certain states during pre-pandemic times remained popular during pandemic times. Meanwhile, the total number of interstate moves involving Seventh District states fell 18.3% between the pre-pandemic and pandemic-era periods, and the total number of moves between Seventh District states was 29.3% lower. The major metro areas in the Seventh District were fairly steady as being either majority inbound or outbound between the two periods.

What could explain these migration patterns? When gathering their moving data, United Van Lines also asks those who are moving why they decided to relocate. The different reasons for moving that were cited and the percentages of people who gave those reasons for relocating can be compared over our period of study of the raw moving data—namely, 2018–21. During the pre-pandemic period of 2018–19, 51.4% of the respondents to United Van Lines’ survey question about moving rationale cited a job change or transfer as their main reason for relocating, compared with 37.1% during the pandemic-era period of 2020–21. Only 23.2% of the respondents cited moving to be physically closer to family in pre-pandemic times, compared with 29.6% in pandemic times. Retirement destinations and lifestyle preferences edged up as motivations for moving among the respondents, rising from a combined 29.8% in the pre-pandemic period to 31.8% in the pandemic-era period. Covid-motivated moves, while still around 10% in the fourth quarter of 2021, were noticeably lower than their level at year-end 2020.

Conclusion

Our analysis of United Van Lines data shows that the patterns of pre-pandemic moves were mostly the same as those of pandemic-era moves. However, the number of moves was substantially lower after the pandemic began. Any further detailed exploration of what has driven the patterns and changes we’ve observed between pre-pandemic and pandemic-era periods is left for future research.

According to one recent analysis of United States Postal Service data, there was a spike in requests for a temporary change of address during February through July of 2020, strongly implying that at least some of these pandemic-era moves weren’t permanent. So, at this point, the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on domestic migration patterns isn’t known. That won’t be determined until the worst of the pandemic is much further behind us.


Notes

1 We and the other Chicago Fed staff who worked in some capacity on this post are grateful to United Van Lines for the use of these data. This post was reviewed by both the Chicago Fed and United Van Lines before final publication.

2 The World Health Organization (WHO) did not officially declare Covid-19 to be a pandemic until March 11, 2020. However, on account of the virus, it did declare a global health emergency of international concern on January 31, 2020; the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services declared it a public health emergency on the same day. See the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Covid-19 timeline. With all that said, for the purposes of this blog post, we consider 2018–19 data to be pre-pandemic data and 2020–21 data to be pandemic-era data.

3 See, e.g., figure 3 in this April 2022 Brookings piece analyzing recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

4 See p. 18 of this March 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics working paper.

5 The United Van Lines data are available at the county level. To categorize the counties as either metro or nonmetro, we have to determine whether or not a county lies within a core-based statistical area, or CBSA (i.e., a metropolitan or micropolitan statistical area) by using information from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Additional information on these geographic units delineated by the United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) are available online. Counties that are matched to a CBSA are considered to be metro counties, while counties that are not matched to a CBSA are considered to be nonmetro counties.


The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.

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