What Happened to Migration in 2016? REDUX!

Now That We Have Full CPS Data

When last I talked about the CPS migration data in September, we didn’t have a full release, so there wasn’t that much I could say. As such, I took the time to share this wonderful chart I made of the different time-windows for major migration data sources:

Ain’t it swell?

Anyways, we now have complete CPS data! Yay! So let’s dive into it.


First of all, the headline data. I last updated this chart for the IRS data so the headline is still IRS-related, but the key lines for today are the blue lines. Interstate migration fell as of March 2016…but intercounty migration made a very substantial rise.

To explain this, we’ll need to dig in a bit deeper than in the past. Let’s start with what I consider to be the most important single demographic indicator: age.

With this tool you can click around for different ages and get the history of their interstate migration rates. But it doesn’t give a clear-cut picture of what changed in 2016. So here’s a bar graph of just changes:

Okay, so here we see sharp declines in all the elder-migration categories, while much less severe declines for younger people, and even some increases. Notably, the elder-migration-declines should be seen as even more dramatic when we consider that older people already have very low migration rates.

Now, that said, much of this is just offsetting 2015. Elder migration rose substantially in 2015, while migration fell for some younger age brackets. Here’s 2016 vs 2014 instead:

The declines in elder-migration are much less pronounced, however, they’re still there. Meanwhile, while none of the increases in younger-aged migration are as extreme, the increases are somewhat more uniform.

Wildly speculative sidenote: the 20–24 age bracket could be highly sensitive to the importance and affordability of graduate schools relative to future employment.

So that’s interstate migration. It is down relative to 2015 mostly due to retiree declines and some middle-aged declines, even as young migration was more positive. Relative to 2014, it is essentially flat, as gains for the young have kept pace with losses among the old.

But what about inter-county migration?

Game on, let’s do it.

Once again, feel free to play around with the tool. What I’d recommend is that you look at the age groups from 18–29 especially. You’ll notice something interesting: these groups have begun recovering their mobility! Here’s 2016 vs 2014, so 2-year cumulative change:

Well whaddya know. We’ve got very large gains in migration in that 18–29 crowd, as well as some gains in the middle-aged and pre-retirement crowd. I lose some data quality on the over-74 crowd sadly on this set, but it seems the other older groups do better on intercounty than interstate mobility.

I don’t know what’s causing this pattern of change. But given that migration in the 18–30 range is generally some of the most influential migration for future earning prospects, these higher rates are encouraging.

Not too encouraging, of course: these rates remain well below the rates observed even a few years ago. But it is at least the beginning of a positive sign, especially as we observe upticks in both intrastate and interstate migration for some groups like 18–19 and 25–29 year-olds.


We can also look at marital status to figure out how life-cycle migration may be changing.

Let’s start with interstate migration, as we did before:

A cautionary note: the data from 1999–2007 is extremely flawed due to a data processing error at the Census Bureau, so take year-to-year changes with a grain of salt. The key thing to notice here is that migration declined for married people regardless of proximity to their spouse, for divorced and separated people… but it rose for the widowed, and was basically flat for single people. This is odd. Rising migration for widows is peculiar given the declining migration for the elderly.

We can also look at this for intrastate migration:

Here, we see a sharp rise in migration for married people absent from their spouse, as well as some significant increases for those never married, divorced people, and widowed people.

Finally, we can total up intercounty and interstate migration, and get:

As you can see, when we total it all up, migration rates by marital status actually look fairly stable since 2010 or so. But since 2014, we can see that, of the two very large population categories, single migration has risen, while married migration has nudged downwards.


We can also look at education, of course, a classic “life cycle” factor. Let’s start with interstate migration:

We can see that interstate migration has basically been stable for each educational group since really about 2007–2010 or so. Yes, there has been year-over-year volatility, especially for graduate-degree holders, but basically we’ve seen stability. Any growth in gross interstate migration for the population over 25-years-old, then, is likely due to changes in the educational composition of the population; i.e. changed overall migration would be due to changes in educational attainment, which might stem from changes in access to education, demographic composition, or the perceived returns from education.

Next up, we can look at intrastate migration, so shorter-range moves:

Here, we see some big differences. First of all, note that for interstate migration, there were big differences by educational attainment. For intrastate migration, there isn’t as much difference by educational attainment. The spread between educational levels is smaller, and better-educated groups don’t necessary migrate more within a state.

Perhaps most curiously, graduate degree-holders saw the steepest decline in migration to the recessionary low point, and have since seen the steepest increase as well. Meanwhile, individuals with less than a bachelor’s degree, and especially those with no high school diploma, have chugged along very near their recessionary low points. Indeed, the no HS diploma group has pretty doggedly sat at very, very low levels.

Finally, we can combined intrastate and interstate migration rates.

Now, remember, because the interstate migration rates were pretty stable, changes in these lines will mostly reflect changes in intrastate migration. But here, we see that the combined effects suggest that while migration is definitely recovering for college graduates. Here’s a simple chart of change from 2010 to 2016:

Recent optimistic moves in migration, then, should be seen as heavily class-biased. Uneducated Americans continue to exhibit the sharply lower migration rates we’ve observed in recent years, even as more educated Americans begin to recover some of their traditionally high geographic mobility.


As a parting note, I want to look at one group: 20-somethings with college or graduate degrees, broken out my marital status. The results are interesting:

Both married couples moving together and individuals moving without partners have seen their migration rates fall dramatically when I control for education and age. Both trends show migration as having flatlined after 2010 or so. But then married migration actually seemed like it might rise and catch up with these curiously-immoble single young people during the early 2010s. But then, in 2016, BANG! the gap widens.

I don’t have a great explanation for this trend, but, given how much of my readership probably either falls in these categories or did recently so fall, I thought it’d be neat to present the data.

Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.

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I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. 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.