Numbers Show Amount of People Who Moved in Last Year Plummeted, Contrary to Narratives

The U.S. Census Bureau released new data Wednesday that showed that the proportion of people who moved over the last year plummeted to its lowest level in the 73 years that it has been tracked. This is contrary to popular narratives of people leaving cities in masses to escape COVID restrictions or to look for a more rural lifestyle.

"Millennials living in New York City do not make up the world," Thomas Cooke, a demographic consultant in Connecticut, joked. "My millennial daughter's friends living in Williamsburg, dozens of them came home. It felt like the world had suddenly moved, but in reality, this is not surprising at all.

The Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement reported 8.4 percent of U.S. residents, over 27 million people, said they moved in the past year.

In contrast, 9.3 percent of U.S. residents moved from 2019 to 2020. That same figure was 17 percent three decades ago.

The COVID pandemic possibly caused people to delay life events like marriage or having babies that often lead to moves, according to the Associated Press. However, William Fry, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, said the decrease is part of a migration decline in the U.S. that spans decades.

"These numbers show a lot of people didn't move or moved at a slower rate," Frey said. "But it's a longer-term trend."

There was only one increase in mobility patterns last year, occurring in longer-distance movies, from state to state, rather than moves within a state or country. Frey said it could be due to the pandemic that those 4.3 million people moved to another state.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

U.S. Census, Moves, Decreased, Lowest Rate
Above, students finish loading belongings into a U-Haul truck as they move out of their dorm in Washington on March 18, 2020. The proportion of people who moved over the past year fell to its lowest rate in the 73 years that it has been tracked, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Patrick Semansky/AP Photo, File

Demographic expert Andrew Beveridge used change-of-address data to show that while people moved out of New York, particularly in well-heeled neighborhoods, at the height of the pandemic, those neighborhoods recouped their numbers just months later. Regarding the nation as a whole, Beveridge said he's not surprised migration declined.

"The same thing happened during the financial crisis. Nobody moved. Nobody got married. Nobody had kids," said Beveridge, a sociology professor at Queens College and the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York. "All demographic change sort of just screeches to a halt."

Other factors contributing to Americans staying put have been an aging population since older people are less likely to move than younger ones; the ability to telecommute for work, which allowed some workers to change jobs without having to move; and rising home prices and rents that kept some would-be movers in place, demographers said.

"I think the boom in remote work because of COVID coupled with the economic shock is the big reason," said Mary Craigle, bureau chief for Montana's Research and Information Services.

Mobility in the U.S. has been on a downward slide since 1985 when 20 percent of U.S. residents moved. That was an era when Baby Boomers were young adults, beginning careers, getting married and starting families. In comparison, millennials, who today are in the same age range as their Baby Boomer cohorts were in the mid-1980s, are stuck in place due to high housing costs and underemployment, according to an analysis Frey did last year.

Advancements in telecommunications and transportation have contributed to the decades-long decline in U.S. mobility. Nowadays, people can get an education, work and visit family and friends remotely. In the last half of the last century, the highway system allowed people to work 50 miles (80 kilometers) from their homes without having to move closer for work, said Cooke, a professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut.

Rising economic insecurity over the decades also has made U.S. residents less mobile since "when there's insecurity, people value what they already have," he said.

The slowdown in American mobility is part of a recent stagnation in population dynamics in the U.S. The 2020 census shows that the U.S. grew by only 7.4 percent over the previous decade, the slowest rate since between 1930 and 1940. Earlier this week, the Census Bureau revealed that the population center of the U.S. moved only 11.8 miles (19 kilometers), the smallest shift in 100 years.

U.S. Census Bureau, People Moving, Lowest Rate
The U.S. Census Bureau released new figures Wednesday that show that the proportion of people who moved last year plummeted to its lowest level ever. In this photo, the U.S. Census logo appears on census materials received in the mail with an invitation to fill out census information online on March 19, 2020, in San Anselmo, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images