Capital of Nomads:

Part 1

How Migrants Shape, Use, and Ultimately Define the Washington, DC Metro Area

For my next several blog posts, I’ll be taking an in-depth look at migration in the Washington, DC metro area. There are several reasons for this. First, I currently live in DC, so it’s easy for me to ground-check various claims and see if they pass the sniff test. Second, as the US capital, what’s happening in DC matters for the nation on the whole. Third, as I will show, DC is a truly unique city of migrants, with strikingly high migration rates and some unusual migration ties.

This first post will focus on the basics: broad outlines of population and migration trends. The next post will then decompose aggregate migration rates by various demographic factors. Finally, the last post will look in detail at where migrants are coming from and going to.

DC Migration Overview

Population On the Move

Most residents of the Washington, DC metro area don’t live in the District of Columbia proper, but in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs around it. From 1969 to 1990, the Maryland ‘burbs predominated. But since the early 1990s, Virginia has grown rapidly, and now has about 3 million residents. Notably, the population actually living in DC declined from 1969 to about 2005, and has only grown very recently.

From 1969 to the mid 2000s, the District of Columbia usually weighed on metro-wide population growth, with rates below the national average, and frequently negative. From 1972 until 2011, the Virginia counties of the DC area consistently saw the fastest growth. But since 2005, the District has seen rising growth rates, passing the national average in 2008, the metro average in 2009, and becoming the fastest-growing part of the metro area after 2011. Meanwhile, in 2014, Maryland’s growth rate passed that of Virginia for the first time since 1971.

As northern Virginia’s population growth slows down, the former laggards have become the leaders.

DC Migration Overview

The State of Migration

Population growth rates for the DC metro area have varied widely since 1990, and almost entirely in response to changing migration rates. Natural population change through births and deaths (light gray line) has had relatively little role in determining differences in population growth from year-to-year, because it is fairly stable. Within net migration generally, international migration has also been relatively stable over the period. Thus, annual changes in population growth rates are almost entirely due to changes in domestic migration. Population growth for the whole metro area has slowed since 2010 due to slowing migration, especially domestic migration.

Changes in domestic migration explain almost all variation in DC growth rates.

Migrants into DC outnumber those born in the area, a trait DC shares with very few other large metro areas. Just 31 percent of DC residents live in their state of birth. Even other cross-border metro areas like New York City or Kansas City do not share this level of migrant dependency: in fact, most metro areas with high shares of people living outside their state of birth are not cross-border metros. Beyond domestic migrants, the DC metro area also has a large foreign-born population, and even a disproportionately large population of Americans born to US citizen parents abroad, although these diasporan-born remain a small group. Thus, while the DC metro area has traditionally experienced net outmigration, its population is disproportionately likely to be “from somewhere else.”

So how can this large stock of in-migrants exist alongside persistent out-migration?

DC Migration Overview

Uniquely DC Migration

Around the nation, people move at different rates. But within the DC metro area as well, migration can vary signficantly. For example, on average between 2009 and 2013, almost a fifth of the residents of the District of Columbia moved to a different residence in a given year, compared to just 14 percent in the Virginia part of the metro area. Maryland and the District of Columbia both have higher residential mobility than the national average, while Virginia and West Virginia are slightly lower. Overall, metro DC’s gross migration rate is somewhat higher than the national average. Crucially, however, these bars show all residential relocations: moves within a county in DC are among the lowest in the nation, so DC-tied residential relocations are more likely to cross state or county lines.

High migration volume creates high migrant stocks, even with net out-migration.

The above chart shows migration rates for each part of the DC metro area, based on the type of migration: intrametro, extrametro, and international. There’s a clear trend: foreigners and people from around the US move into the District of Columbia at disproportionately high rates. Then, they move within the District, most often to Virginia, but sometimes to Maryland. Then, those areas experience net outflows to the rest of the nation. We might think of this in life cycle terms: young students and interns move to DC, get married and move to the suburbs, then, when their kids hit school age, maybe they move somewhere closer to family and affordable education. But it’s very clear that the migration dynamo driving the DC metro area isn’t Virginia or Maryland: it’s the District of Columbia itself.

Despite negative migration overall, the District of Columbia is the main attraction for migrants from around the nation and the world.

DC Migration Overview


The Washington, DC metro area is growing rapidly, in no small part due to migration. Yet despite having a large migrant population, the metro area has negative migration flows to the rest of the nation. This paradox can be resolved by DC’s high extrametro volume of migration. Because the District of Columbia draws a large, constant influx of migrants from around the nation and the world, the metro area has a high stock of migrants. However, those migrants are often transient, returning home once they have kids or have finished whatever the moved for. Persistent negative net migration alongside a large migrant population implies a high volume of migration.

The next post will look at some demographic breakouts for DC migration, so stay tuned.

See part 2 of this series.

See part 3 of this series, mapping out DC local migration.

See my previous post on migration life cycles.

See my previous writing on local migration studies in Atlanta, North Carolina, Kentucky, and California.

Start my series on migration from the beginning.

If you like this post and want to see more research like it, I’d love for you to share it on Twitter or Facebook. Or, just as valuable for me, you can click the recommend button at the bottom of the page. Thanks!

Follow me on Twitter to keep up with what I’m writing and reading. Follow my Medium Collection at In a State of Migration if you want updates when I write new posts. And if you’re writing about migration too, feel free to submit a post to the collection!

I’m a graduate of the George Washington University’s Elliott School with an MA in International Trade and Investment Policy, and an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. I like to learn about migration, the cotton industry, airplanes, trade policy, space, Africa, and faith.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research. More’s the pity.

Cover photo source.