Having been a west-coaster (that’s ‘west-coaster’, not ‘wet coaster’) all my life, and until recently having roamed the country mostly by dropping into cities to work for a few hours or days, I’ve always had an idle theory (some would say prejudice): that people on the coasts tend to move around more, and people in the middle tend to be born and stay put.
Since we’ve been driving around the country talking with folks, I’ve come to question my pre-conceived notion. And while at first I saw this as just curiosity, I’ve also begun to believe it matters.
Now, thanks to the New York Times, I can say that my theory was entirely simplistic and sort of correct.
When we set out to explore the country, I wanted to ask people everywhere the same question—I wanted to see what we could learn about the seemingly dwindling uniqueness of different regions, and how people feel about their place. Incidental to this, I’ve been asking if they grew up there, why they moved or stayed, and what they like about it.
While many reinforced my theory about the edges and the middle, we also talked with so many in middle states who haven’t stayed put. So, questioning my assumption, I wondered if it was an urban/rural divide; if people in urban areas tend to move around more, and those in rural areas tend to stay put. And of course it’s a given that regional economics and job opportunities play a role—though I haven’t tried to fit this into my simplistic notions.
All of this was idle conjecture, knowing I wasn’t going to undertake a study to test my assumptions.
But—excellent timing—I woke up recently to a New York Times article that addressed my question, with data showing that my hypothesis was correct up to a point, but providing much more depth to better understand the trends. The article, Where We Came From and Where We Went, State by State, charts how Americans have moved between states since 1900, based on census data.
Each state is broken down by residents’ state of birth, and it’s beautifully graphed to show the flow of domestic migration from 1900 to the present. So you can see which states people are leaving, and where they’re moving. For example, one key trend is the out-migration of Californians (like me). The authors comment, “There are now about 6.8 million California natives living elsewhere, up from 2.7 million in 1980.” Graphs are color coded by region, and rollovers show relative percentages for each band by decade. And while not attempting to attribute migration to specific causes, the authors note its effects, saying, “Migration can reveal the dynamism of a state’s economy or a cultural renaissance.”
Here’s another example, graphing Florida’s migration pattern. Note that the data shows percentages only—not the total number of residents. “It seems as if Florida has been pulling down residents from snow country forever, but the reality is, through 1960, Georgia was the leading source of Florida migration… Florida has grown so much that even though this chart makes it appear that the migrant population is shrinking, it isn’t; it’s just not growing as fast as the native-born and immigrant populations.”
So how does this data support or refute my move/stay-put hypothesis?
Here’s what I learned. (For regional categories, I used the same four regions used by the authors. But I excluded Alaska and Hawaii, as they don’t fit easily into any of the four regions, and they don’t have data going back to 1900. And the authors count Washington DC as a state.)
In which regions are current residents more likely to live where they were born (compared to 1990)?
Looking at the trend behind this, the authors note that, “States in the South that have traditionally been dominated by people who were born there are seeing significant in-migration for the first time. The South used to lead the country by a wide margin with people who were born in the state where they live. Now, several Midwestern states — Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin and, stretching toward the East, Pennsylvania — are near the top of that list.”
Slicing this data up by the edges vs. middle theory, here’s what we see (compared to 1990).
Of course this simplistic summary masks the great diversity of state-by-state migration trends, as you can see in the article’s flow charts above.
A few observations:
- As shown on my table above, since 1990, folks on the edges do move around more than those in the middle—so recently that assumption is right, though not by very much. But historically, it’s the south vs. everywhere else, rather than the edges vs. the middle, that has been the regional determinant for whether someone is most likely to live where they were born.
- While I’ve noted the trends by regions and by edges vs. middle, one take-away that surprised me is that the differences are pretty small—there aren’t dramatic contrasts between the regions, as I thought there might be.
- Not a big surprise given technology, mobility and communications, but since 1900, in all except two states people are now much less likely to live where they were born. (The two exceptions are Vermont, which has stayed essentially flat since 1900; and Nevada, the only state where people are now more likely to stay than in 1900.) So the clear longer-term trend is that we’re ALL moving around more than we used to.
- Washington DC is the only ‘state’ where the percentage of those who stayed is much lower than those moving to another state; in the last 30+ years, more people moved to Maryland than stayed put, and today it’s more than twice as many.
All of which brings me to: why should we care?
We’re back to anecdote and conjecture here, but it sounds like people appreciate their place in very distinct ways, depending on whether they moved or stayed put. Talking with people who live where they grew up, surprisingly often they can’t articulate why they like it; and by far the most common reason they say they live there is “it’s a good place to raise a family.” But talking with people who moved away, the reasons are much more varied, and raising a family hasn’t come up. I’ve commonly heard: “I moved here for my (or my husband’s) job;” “we traveled here and loved it so we moved here;” and “I moved here with my ex.”
There’s a trade-off between staying close to your family roots and moving elsewhere, whether for economic opportunity or just because you like it better. For some, staying close to family is the most important, or only, consideration; for others, choosing to move helps them more actively appreciate the uniqueness of their place. I think that whether we chose to move or not helps determines how we feel about a place, and how we may describe its uniqueness. And that, based on no scientific data whatever, seems to be what really differentiates us.