What Happened to Migration in 2015?

American Community Survey Edition

Well folks, it’s that time of year again! Summer is giving way to fall, and all the statistical agencies are dumping reams of migration data on us! Today, it’s the American Community Survey, the real big kahuna for migration.

So let’s look at what we’ve got!

ACS interstate migration is up again, while intercounty migration is down. So the news here is mixed. But the interstate migration is what I’m most interested in, because it saw the biggest decline during the recession. That’s the red line there.

Of course, this is not at all surprising. On a theoretical grounds, this is because anti-migration policies like extended unemployment insurance and other stimulus have calmed down, and because we’ve seen recent economic strength begin boosting wages and pulling some people back into the labor force. On a more practical grounds, ACS 2015 data is measuring many of the same movements that get reported in the March 2015 CPS ASEC. Nerd note: this is because ASEC asks in March 2015 about moves in last year, so April 2014-March 2015. ACS asks a sample each month about moves in the last year, so asking January 2015 to December 2015 about moves from January 2014 to December 2014. Ergo, the ASEC CPS measure is a fairly good predictor of the *next* ACS to be released.

What about demographic breakouts? Glad you asked!

Migration by Life Stage

Let’s start by age group.


Migration rose for those ages 1 to 4, 25–34, 35–44, and 65–74. It stayed about even for everyone else. Also, a note, out of respect for the ACS’ margins of error, I’ve only taking estimates to the first decimal place. Estimates beyond that are fun, but the ACS really doesn’t promise those results are accurate.

So after a brief recover from 2010 lows, it seems like young migration, especially around college, grad school, and immediate post-college, is continue to stagnate. On the other hand, early- and mid-career migration has nearly reached 2005 levels. That’s an encouraging sign.

Next up, education!

Migration rates for college graduates continue to rise at a good clip. However, migration for those with just a high school degree remains stagnant at record-low levels, while migration for those with less than a high school degree did recover from its alarmingly low levels, but is still quite low. Overall, the divergence in migration rates between the most and least educated remained at its large levels set in 2014.

Migration by Background

With two key life cycle factors addressed, let’s next look at questions of race and origin. We’ll do race first.

Much is was the case last year, Hispanic migration remains very low, while multiracial migration remains very high. Asian and Black migration rose, but remain below historic levels, while non-hispanic whites saw their migration remain stable. Indigenous ethnicities, meanwhile, saw a sharp drop in migration rates. While once American Indians had among the highest gross migration rates, they now have among the lowest.

Next, we can look at national origin and citizenship status.

Noncitizen foreigner migration rates rose, others were stable. It should be noted that as foreigners make up a larger share of the U.S. population, we can expect migration to decline. And as naturalized citizens make up a larger share of foreigners, we can expect still more decline in national migration rates.

There are other demographic factors we can look at, but few of them show really interesting trends, so let’s skip to the event you’ve all been waiting for: winners and losers!

Migration by State

First of all, as a reminder, there are no winners or losers. Net gains in migration do not necessarily always say good things about a state, and net losses do not necessarily always say bad things. Demographic changes, economic shocks, policy choices, changing preferences among the population, and other factors can all alter migration balances and drive different patterns of migration. So states “losing” migrants are not necessarily “losing” in the sense of “experiencing bad outcomes.” That disclaimer made, it is true that some places experiences losses because they fail to provide desired amenities at an acceptable cost, or fail to provide economic opportunity, and these are indeed bad things.

In 2015, migration saw a stronger regional trend than in 2014. It should also be noted that 2014 saw a stronger regional trend than 2013. We’re seeing a return to pre-recession geographic patterns of migration. This time around, we can see the mountain west really doing better, while much of New England and New York continue to perform poorly. California and New Mexico also got worse. Many Sunbelt states saw worse records too, but not as steep a decline as in Maine or Massachusetts, for example, while others, like Alabama and North Carolina, saw increases.

But hold on. This could all just be statistical noise. The ACS is a survey, and it’s got margins of error. So what we should ask is which states have net 2015 estimated migration rates outside the error band of 2014 net migration?

There are just 11 states where we can be reasonably confident that net migration really did see a meaningful change. In Washington, Wyoming, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Delaware, and Alaska, we see what we could call meaningful indicators that migration has genuinely gotten more positive. In California, Louisiana, Maine, and Massachusetts, we can see pretty good evidence that migration really did decline.

But that’s just a one-sided test. We really want to see true significance, i.e. can we be pretty much entirely sure there was a change?

There are only 2 states were the entire 2015 error-band is outside the entire 2014-error band, indicating strong confidence that the true level of migration really did change. Those two states are Alaska, where migration went from deeply negative to just slightly negative, and Massachusetts, where migration went from slightly negative to pretty strongly negative.


Interstate migration rose in 2015. It isn’t yet back to pre-recession levels, but it’s now well above the trough, largely thanks to a strengthening economy and the end of anti-migration policies enacted during the recession. However, that increase is overwhelmingly concentrated among the most highly educated and those already embarked on their career. Migration among the less-educated and college-aged indivduals has been more-or-less stagnant. Regional trends we saw before the recession seem to be returning, although, as always, there are exceptions. Even as Massachusetts saw worse migration, New Hampshire saw better. Even as North Carolina improved, Louisiana worsened. Strong generalizations about whole regions should be avoided.

Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.

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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. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

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.