How many times have you heard someone say, “I wish I could live in a place where I had to shovel snow.” That straightforward reality is often lost in the politicized discussion of US migration.
Sunbelt Governors are quick to credit their politics for recent years of population growth. An official state website in Texas frames the state’s appeal around Republican talking points:
Texas is where liberty lives. That’s why the Lone Star State leads the nation in job creation over the last 10 years and in population growth over the last 14.
Liberty isn’t why Texas is growing, but you’ll get similar propaganda in Florida, where the state CFO insists that the state’s lack of income tax explains the steady influx of retirees. South Dakota also has no income tax, yet it has failed to capture the imaginations of New Jersey’s retirees. South Dakota added about 190,000 residents in the past 40 years. Perhaps something other than tax rates are influencing these trends.
Understanding migration in the US starts with a central thesis: All things being equal, people are more likely to choose a warm climate over a cold one. Cheap air conditioning and the Civil Rights Acts made life in America’s warmer climates more accessible, sparking a decades-long southern shift. Since 1990, three big sunbelt states, Florida, California and Texas have accounted for well over a third of US population growth.
Yet, low tax rates, hyper-conservative government and business friendly regulation aren’t enough to drive growth. Alaska and Wyoming have no income tax and single-party Republican governments yet their growth was among the slowest in the country over the past decade.
Sunshine alone isn’t enough. Populations of sweltering Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana have been relatively flat for decades. And California’s sunny weather hasn’t prevented a population decline in recent years.
Getting to the bottom of this question starts with separating population from migration, a distinction Sunbelt Republicans don’t like to discuss. Mere population growth doesn’t suggest people are “choosing” to live in that place. No one chooses where to be born.
Then we have to draw a distinction between different kinds of migration at different points in life. Retirees pouring into Florida (at a slower rate than in the past, by way) aren’t coming for the “business climate.” They’re looking for a cheap, comfortable place to wait around to die. Their priorities will differ significantly from college graduates and young parents.
When we look at population alone, one megatrend skews the picture. US population growth is in steep decline, dipping to just .35% last year. A brief rebound is likely this year with a modest revival of immigration, but the collapse in US birth rates and weakening immigration threatens to bring negative population growth this decade. Thanks to these dynamics, America’s fastest growing state is the Mormon enclave of Utah, at 18% since 2010. As one might expect, their growth is overwhelmingly driven by the fact that making babies is the only fun they’re allowed to have.
Growth rates in almost every state, including Texas and Florida, declined over the past decade.
This fact can’t be emphasized enough. There is so little population growth in the US now that a state can rise to the top of our growth statistics by pure fertility alone.
In an environment with declining population growth, migration becomes very competitive. Who is moving? For starters, very few people. Fewer Americans than ever are moving, part of a long term trend. Beneath all the noise about migration lies the reality that very little of the recent population growth of Sunbelt states comes from migration, apart from Florida with its retirement pipeline.
Who is most likely to engage in an interstate move? Retirees and people in their early career, usually their 20’s. Lump those two together in a single stat and we get a confusing picture. They are not being drawn to the same places.
Since 2010, our over-65 population has increased by a third while our under-18 population declined. Of the two big population bloc most likely to make an interstate move, retirees are a far larger group. This explains why overall migration trends favor retirement states.
States attracting the highest percentages of interstate migrants are mostly the mild-weather states you’d expect, Florida, Arizona, North & South Carolina along with a couple of other states that draw retirees from California: Oregon and Idaho. Departures come mainly from the Rust Belt and the Northeast along with California and one big recent standout, Kansas.
As the population of younger workers dwindles, interstate contests over migration have become a hot topic. More to the point – the great regional battle for economic and political power in coming decades will be fought and won by the places most successful in attracting young college graduates and (hopefully) immigrants. This is a battle that fast-growing Sunbelt states are losing.
Run a Google search for “best cities for college graduates” and you’ll get list full of winners like Indianapolis, Las Vegas and Louisville. Seems like every week or so you read a story about how Des Moines or Chattanooga are the “New Silicon Valley.” Data on where college grads stay, and move, tells the real story, which is the same old story.
College graduates aren’t following grandma to Myrtle Beach and they aren’t flocking to some hot new small town tech center. They go to the places where America still works, New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. Barely half of college grads in the SEC states want to remain in the region. A majority of the stayers favor the big cities of Atlanta and Dallas while relatively few grads in the Northeast of the West go to these Sunbelt cities.
What does this mean? America’s fastest-growing big city last year wasn’t Houston or Atlanta, but Seattle. In 2020, Seattle’s growth finally nudged past Austin to the fastest in the country, topping off a two-decade surge. The city itself (not the wider metro, that still goes to Austin) notched the fastest growth of any big city for the past decade. Seattle’s migrants are coming mostly from California and Texas, but that’s still not the heart of the story.
Seattle, like NYC and Boston, isn’t drawing hordes of retirees. Growth in the tech industry is fueling the migration of young professionals. Washington state grew as fast as Florida over the past decade under Democratic leadership. That growth was powered by working age migration, migrants who bring their incomes and growing wealth with them. Their money brings benefits that don’t accompany an influx of retirees and wealthy tax migrants. A focus on overall population trends is missing the real story – concentration of high-wage professional workers in America’s traditional, coastal business centers.
If Florida’s population growth is driven by retirees, and college grads are continuing to concentrate in big coastal cities, what’s driving Texas’ growth? Despite noise from political figures, it isn’t a supposed migration of big corporate jobs.
Look beneath the headlines of Texas’ noisy corporate relocations and you’ll notice that they’re about tax evasion. Moves by Oracle, Tesla, HP and other tech companies to place their “headquarters” in Texas moved almost nothing but their address. As Tesla demonstrated, Texas is an attractive destination for a factory, just like Mexico or Vietnam, and for most of the same reasons. Companies are still performing their most critical, most highly compensated work in the same old coastal locations.
Where does Texas growth come from? Mostly its high birth rate. A solid majority of Texas’ population growth since 2010 comes from births, one of the largest rates of natural increase in the US. And that birth rate is powered by Hispanics. A graphic from the Texas Tribune illustrates what this means, as the growth of the Hispanic population accounts for a vast majority of the state’s younger population.
Whites account for a tiny fraction of Texas’ growth since 2010, reflecting two of the dominant features of the state’s demographics. Despite all the talk, Texas’ population growth is dominated by natural increase and immigration from abroad. And that natural increase comes from a large pool of Hispanic immigrants, largely recent.
Still, Texas is a strong competitor for interstate migrants and a large portion of those migrants are working age. We get a clue to this migration pattern from an unusual statistic. Only about half of migrants to Texas move to its major population centers. People aren’t moving to Lubbock or Midland for the scenery. What’s driving migration to Texas is the oil business.
Thanks its dominance of the oil industry, encompassing every aspect of the business from pipefitting to shipping to futures trading, Texas retains an attraction that Ohio and Michigan have lost – an abundance of well paid blue-collar jobs. It’s not just drilling. Truck driving, surveying, pipeline maintenance, refining and all of the white collar elements of the industry are based primarily in Texas. Oil shapes every Texas industry from software to finance.
Texas’ big surge of migration after 2005 coincides with the collapse of Rust Belt manufacturing in the same period. Thanks to the oil business, Texas is a magnet for blue collar migration not seen since the early 20th century. Texas isn’t the new California. It’s the new Ohio.
This also helps explain why Texas’ growth hasn’t done much to moderate the state’s politics. Only a small fraction of the state’s growth over the past fifteen years or so has knowledge work of the kind dominating New York or Boston. Migrants in the prime working age population are not skewing the state left, because a large portion of them respond to a blue collar populist appeal. Even in Houston or Dallas, much of the population growth has been sucked into the very conservative orbit of oil and gas. Unlike almost any other region of the US, Texas continues to support job growth in secondary and even small cities thanks to the demands of oil and gas.
So, why is Texas growing? Most importantly because it’s home to a large Hispanic population which, despite recent declines, maintains much higher birth rates than the local white population. Second, because the state benefits from the warm weather that remains a high priority for many migrants, especially retirees. Third, and perhaps most importantly for the state’s future, Texas is highly unusual in offering robust blue collar job growth due to its powerful oil and gas infrastructure. Taxes have nothing to do with it.
Texas has an oil-driven boom in blue collar jobs (for the moment), warm weather and ready access to immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, across the Southern border. These forces have thus far been powerful enough to outweigh the state’s poor governance, abysmal health care access and stubborn resistance to infrastructure investment.
Molly Ivins is famous for noting that “Texas is Mississippi with good roads.” It may be more accurate to describe Texas as Mississippi with oil.