Americans Are Moving To High-Opportunity Cities

Written by Cullum Clark, Director of the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative Posted On Thursday, 30 September 2021 00:00

Americans are moving to the Sun Belt, Pacific Northwest, Great Plains, and Mountain states in droves, and it’s not just for the nice weather and scenery.

Growth-friendly policies, affordability, and high quality of life have combined to produce many “cities of opportunity” from North Carolina to Arizona and from Colorado to Washington, according to research from the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative.

The large metro areas of Texas and Florida have led the way in gaining new residents over the last decade. Austin, Texas, and Tampa, Florida, are well-known success stories, as are Raleigh, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee. But perhaps more interesting, smaller places like Spokane, Washington; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Fort Collins, Colorado, also rank highly on economic opportunity measures and have seen significant inbound migration since 2010. 

What the top-performing metros have in common, according to our research, is that they all offer above-average living standards and upward mobility for the people who live there. And millions of Americans are voting with their feet and moving to these high opportunity places, according to the latest Census data on domestic migration, which mostly excludes the effects of the pandemic.

Affordability, attractive quality-of-life features, and strong social capital – the trust and connectedness among people that makes a community tick – all draw new residents to high-opportunity cities. So do growth friendly business and land-use rules. Places that don’t have these attributes have experienced net outbound migration and population declines.

The divide has been especially stark among large and mid-sized metros. Of the 250 largest metro areas defined by the Census Bureau, about half – 130 – are attracting residents from elsewhere in the country, while the rest experienced substantial net outflows over the last decade.

The hottest metros have many common geographic and economic traits: They are mostly in just 16 states stretching across the Sun Belt and the Northwest. That includes 58 of the 62 metros in the top quarter nationally for domestic migration, based on a calculation of net inflows as a percentage of 2010 population. On that basis, in-migration over the decade added 19.8% to Austin’s population and 14.5% to Raleigh’s.

On the flip side, the metros that are losing the most people score lower on measures of opportunity. Many are in struggling regions like Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and the Rio Grande Valley – including 34 of the 62 metros ranking in the bottom 25% for net migration. But there are also more than a dozen large metros from the Northeast and the West Coast.

Of America’s 55 metros with more than 1 million people, the four with the largest net out-migration rates are New York, San Jose, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Net outflows amount to 8.8% of New York’s 2010 population and 6.8% of Los Angeles’s.

Although these are wealthy places by some standards, they score below average on the Bush Institute’s opportunity measures because sky-high housing prices and other policy failures hold back opportunity for all but the most highly skilled professionals in fields like technology and finance. The growth of remote working during the COVID-19 crisis has weakened the position of these metros further by loosening the tethers tying people to traditional workplaces.

What’s more, Americans are increasingly moving to urbanizing suburbs within high-opportunity metropolitan areas. More than half the 60 fastest-growing U.S. counties with population over 150,000 are suburban areas within large high-opportunity metros, while most core cities are seeing only modest expansion. 

These suburban localities are becoming job centers and performing all the functions of core cities. Think of booming areas like Collin and Fort Bend counties in Texas and cities like Cary, North Carolina, and Franklin, Tennessee. All are places that score high for living standards and upward mobility for ordinary people.

In sharp contrast, the struggle over the last decade has been hardest on America’s small cities: The 100 metro areas with the smallest population – out of 382 identified by the Census Bureau – have collectively lost 1.5 million people. And, overall, the share of Americans moving to a different county is at its lowest level on record, with studies showing that poor housing affordability is the chief obstacle blocking moves toward opportunity.

America needs more cities of opportunity, and the winners of the past decade are helping show the way.

j h cullum clark 2 2Cullum Clark is Director of the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative.

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