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.
Texas works well (so much better than Mass.) despite the lack of centralized governmental power.
Also, it’s freakin’ huge (economically and geographically).
Also, it knows it’s naughty, and rather likes it.
For these reasons, articles like this will pretty much be the editorial de rigueur for the foreseeable future.
I really would like a follow-up one day to the article you wrote a long while back about how the future of work would be transient tech workers jet-setting to where they need to go and not having ties to this place or that. I think that the developments over the course of the last two years have rendered the idea of transience and “meta-cultures” to make up for lack of ties to one place as not really feasible.
We need people settling down in places. We need people to bring their ideas and ideologies with them to enable progressive change. People coming to a state for a cushy job but then leaving for greener pastures when the going gets rough as soon as they can, it doesn’t create a healthy societal ecosystem. I think a lot of this may also dovetail with your discussion of how the divide in society is shifting to College and Non-College. People with degrees, their diplomas essentially become passports in that future world you envisioned back in 2019. Anybody without them would’ve been an underclass.
It’s only gotten worse. Here’s a link and a blurb:
“Can a democracy organized around the mediating influence of social capital survive the rise of transience? Can this system function when so few of its brightest, most talented and successful people can name a single local politician? Perhaps, but across the world the results so far don’t look promising.”
It’s a pity that California is finding it hard to do more with itself. NIMBYs are the biggest problem, preventing building upgraded dwellings away from wildfire, but secondarily, our tax code could really use some work, and it isn’t going to get it. Proposition 13 (i.e. a form of price control for land owners) is just a total beast of coalition engineering.
Chris, this is clearly another long and well researched article, that required huge effort.
But you seem to be losing the thread.
It does not change votes. It does nothing to predict the future, other than Texas gains seats, California loses seats.
You have the unfortunate timing of posting this in the same news cycle that the Repub in Dem’s clothing just blew the Biden admin’s flagship out of the water.
CNN did their own lip service analysis of the loser party today. I am curious what you see this inept crew doing against the death cult in the next 12-36 months.
Between the total failure of Biden’s flagship agenda, Breyer’s total disconnection from reality, and the inevitable calls for impeachment starting the day after the death cult retakes the House, it is all looking so rosy for democracy.
Texas might indeed be the best place to live in the near future, if you don’t mind Global Warming driven heat and it being ground zero of the fascist apparatus. I don’t think the lifestyle for the white upper/middle class in Texas will change much in the coming years.
Please get therapy, Dins.
Their growth is a fin de siècle phenomenon.
The environmental devastation in West Texas isn’t getting much attention now, but it will be a big deal as the oil and gas energy collapses. They’ll leave behind thousands of holes in the ground, very few of them properly closed. I wouldn’t be surprised if, 20 years from now, the largest private sector occupation out there is cleaning up abandoned wells and pipelines.
Completely in agreement here on that Chris. We’re looking at the phenomenon of Land Cancer, transmitted by underground water, the collapse of insect/bird ecosystems, and the subsequent decimation of economic value. The cotton/tobacco economies of the 18th and 19th centuries and the fossil fuel economies of today are the model. Today those interests hide shell-in-shell so that by the time anyone litigates, there’s nothing to gain.
1. Simply abandoning land, and we’re talking thousands of square miles of it, and forcing the Texas model on neighboring territories. That’ll go nowhere with the traditional ranching dynasties in Texas, who revere their heritage, and who own a whole lot of land. They’ll need to equip with air and water sensors that see the spot on the X-ray early. That might not be enough.
2. The private sector won’t have enough incentive to undertake this as long as there’s another place to move to, so it’ll be government if it happens, which is far-fetched as long as Texans equate freedom with the right to cause collateral damage.
I suspect they know that oil and gas have collapsed already. Their response to the failures of the electricity grid suggest to me that they’re exiting instead of reinvesting: https://www.kut.org/2021-12-16/texas-grid-regulators-approve-initial-overhaul-of-states-energy-market?fbclid=IwAR3U9o5Ov7YLZCESEXcy20GZkDyp-Lk-Z1eHYc_IxdgbwdGTVqKlQ6-7AYY
Kansas should have definitively proved that big tax cuts aren’t all that.
I have lived in Florida most of my life. I am a third generation Floridian. The state has become a lot less attractive to retirees because of the cost of living is not cheap anymore. There are few cultural attractions . The cost of housing and house insurance is high and taxes are not that low , Here most taxes are just labeled user fees. The cost of cooling is about the same as heating up north. Many of my retired colleagues mostly upper middle class have left the state at retirement to places that are cheaper and offer more attractive communities.
Unless you are packing serious money in retirement I would not recommend retiring to Florida. The state spends very little money on social problems which sadly also includes our schools. If you don’t have the money or family close by and something happens you are on your own.
My home is paid off and kids and grandkids live close to me. That is the main reason why I have not also left. My oldest daughter part owns and runs a pest control company and one thing Florida has is bugs so she most likely will not leave. The youngest works in the banking industry as a debit and credit card fraud expert. She is seriously thinking about relocating to Atlanta as opportunities are better there. My wife has most of her relatives there.
Growth has seriously slowed down for Florida in the past decade. Instead of several more congressional seats this census we net one. The population that netted us that are Hispanics and Caribbean. Yet the Republican state legislation are busy trying to gerrymandering their voting power out. Despite a citizen initiative voted in that make that illegal.
Wages are among the lowest in the US while the cost of living is cheaper in many other metro areas in the country. If you factor in the medium wage and living cost the state’s metro areas are the most unaffordable in the nation. Nothing much to attract working age adults. Low wages , high cost of living and crap for education for your kids. And now much less attractive for retirees.
Despite these problems the governor and his party tout low taxes and anti labor polices as attractive. But if workers are not here who produces and who consumes? As I have said before Joe martini is as dumb as Joe six pack. Ignoring these problems is finally going to catch up with us.
BTW we are in for a serious technological disruption. Argue all you want, I retired from a power company and in the know, fossil fuels are going to be displace by green power because green power is cheaper and getting cheaper all the time. How will Texas fair in the next several decades? I suspect as oil fall out of favor just like coal today has it will not be that well.
Thank you for this comment. I’d be glad to talk further with someone who knows the Florida utility picture.
Yep, I just left Florida with my young family after spending my entire life there. There was absolutely nothing left there for me or my family, in economic terms and increasingly when it came to Florida’s “amenities”. As two young professionals, my wife and I were completely priced out of buying a decent home, the cost of living in general is relatively high for Florida’s median wage, public services like schools were pretty bad if you DIDN’T have one of those super expensive houses in a nice area, global warming is already straining the state water supply pretty severely (my wife is a senior hydrogeologic consultant, and municipal water supplies are filling up with salt in the most populous area and are ready to collapse), and global warming is turning hot weather into blistering weather. I was big into water sports, but toxic algae resulting from poor environmental regulations returns every other summer and ruins that part of the Florida experience, too. So what’s left other than fond memories?
And by the way, my wife and I were both in knowledge economy jobs, and still couldn’t make a decent go at it. If we were older and bought into housing earlier, it might not be as bad when Florida prices were low. But the problem with Florida is the wages in Florida for just about any job are lower than the national average, but the cost of living is still high because you are competing with the lifetime earnings of retirees, none of whom want to invest in the kinds of infrastructure that make young families prosper (why spend on other people’s kids?)
Where did you end up?
Also investing long term in FL real estate if you are a young adult isn’t a good bet. That state is getting the rising sea levels worst and first.
Flypusher, ended up landing in the Charlotte suburb/exurb area. Got twice as much house for the price in a 10/10 rated school district. For the same price back in Florida I would have gotten a 50 year old shack with 4/10 rated schools. It didn’t used to be that way growing up in Florida. My parents bought a 2500 square foot house on 2 acres of land next to nice schools in a semi-rural area. When my wife and I were trying to buy in Florida, the moment we realized it wasn’t the place for us is when we realized we couldn’t afford the very same house my parents bought 40 years ago. As in, even though it was now 40 years old it was still too expensive for 2 full time working adults, as opposed to my Dad and his former middle class job 40 years ago. The fact that the schools had also deteriorated as well was just the cherry on top. And my wife and I were in the top 5-10 percent of house income earners in Florida, too. I have no idea how people of less means could possibly hope of ever earning enough to buy a decent home in South Florida.
There’s lots of culture in Florida, but most of it mold and mildew.
Grin when I read your comment. A big piece of my older daughter’s income is mold treatment.