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Where Migration Changed in 2016

Oil Is King. Ish.

Lyman Stone
· 6 min read

Yesterday, I took a look at Census back-year revisions to population. I’m reasonably confident I’m the only analyst that publishes on that topic, hence why I take that angle first. But fear not, I have not neglected the question of 2016 changes! For this post, I’ll run through a few quick pieces on where migration changed in 2016.

We can map it pretty easily:

The map above makes a few things crystal clear. First, in terms of demographic impact, the oil boom is collapsing. Everywhere that fracking is a big share of the economy saw worsening net migration. However, this isn’t just oil: coal country in eastern Kentucky and WVA also saw declines, as did many other areas that are mining-dependent.

Meanwhile, migration also worsened in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, around the DC metro area, around NYC, around Boston, etc. All the “elite coastal cities” you’ve been hearing about are seeing their net migration move lower relative to the recent past.

Well, not quite all. While core Seattle and Portland basically just sat at their previous levels, their suburbs did extremely well, and, in fact, virtually everywhere west of the Front Ranges of the Rockies did quite well for itself, barring the superstar cities of California and a few mining counties. Utah, Idaho, Arizona, western Colorado, Washington, Oregon, they all cleaned up nicely in 2016.

Meanwhile, we also saw above-recent migration performance in Florida, Tennessee, central and north Georgia, western North Carolina, and most of central and eastern Texas. Maine and Vermont also fared well for themselves.

Lest you should think I’m hiding the ball here by taking a 2010–2015 average as my baseline, here’s ’16 vs. ‘15:

Sure, it’s a bit messier, but the broad conclusions remain pretty well the same.

We can also look at changes in domestic net migration by metro area instead of county. This will of course drop numerous counties entirely, but does allow us to see something more like inter-regional migration.

Some of the trends we observed crop up again. Most oil migration isn’t in urban areas, but the cities nearest the oil fields do seem to be facing more negative migration. The Appalachian region and all the east coast megalopolis cities are facing more negative migration as well.

Meanwhile, we can see the strength of Florida, the mountain west, Arizona, and the Pacific Northwest quite clearly, as well as some strength in the upper south region.

What becomes clearer in this map, however, is the large-scale loss throughout Illinois. This isn’t a midwest thing: many Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota metro areas fared just fine, even improving their performance. Nor is this a Chicago thing: migration worsened in non-Chicago Illinois metro areas as well. Now, this may be a proximity to Chicago thing, as far downstate Illinois seems to be suffering less, and non-IL metros near Chicago also seem to be struggling.

We can also see the weakness along the western Gulf Coast. This is largely oil-driven as well, but wasn’t quite as clear in the county maps.

We can also look at how domestic net migration has developed over time for a few cities. For example, here’s a basket of several Appalachian metros:

Here we see a divergence. Around 2011/2012, things looked pretty good for these cities. Huntington was struggling of course, but most had positive domestic migration, some very robustly so like Morgantown, WV. Roanoke, as I’ve discussed before, has been much-ballyhooed for its successes.

However, Appalachian metros’ conditions have worsened in many cases, although the most successful metros, like Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Asheville, are getting even moreso! This is a divergence within Appalachia.

We can also look at a basket of midwestern cities:

The above chart is really noisy, I know, but I wanted to include most of the metros I expect people might ask about. As you can see, Des Moines kinda kicks butt, and Chicago is the Big Loser. Chicago’s net migration is more severely negative than any of the other metros in my sample and, to be clear, I included Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis, so I wasn’t cherry-picking strong cases. Chicago has more severe outflows even than collapsing cities like Youngstown.

The reason Chicago isn’t declining as fast, or at least wasn’t in the past, is that it historically received more immigrants (which is changing), and it was historically somewhat younger than other Midwestern cities, giving it higher birth rates and lower death rates.

Next up, let’s look at the east coast!

As you can see, net migration was worsened around the east coast, except in Richmond and, oddly to me, Providence, RI. In Boston, Hartford, Baltimore, and Washington DC, once-positive migration has turned negative. Meanwhile, Negative migration in Philadelphia and NYC has worsened. This, by the way, isn’t the story you’d expect if the largest cities are always gonna inevitably get bigger and bigger.

From the east coast, we can turn to some major Sunbelt cities.

Here, we see something really worth remarking on: the great diversity of experiences within Sunbelt cities. Since 2010, net migration in Miami and New Orleans has gotten more and more negative, and New Orleans is now actually in the red for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. Houston, meanwhile, had been running at a good clip alongside peers in Phoenix, Nashville, Orlando, and Charlotte… but a weakening oil sector sent it plummeting in 2016. However, I should note, that “plummeting” remains comparable to Atlanta’s net migration, so it’s nothing to sneeze at. Meanwhile, Austin continues to chug along at an incredibly impressive 1.6% net migration rate. Apparently weird is pretty popular.

Finally, we can look to the mountain and coastal west.

Let’s start with two Bay-Area cities, San Francisco and San Jose (blue lines). Both now have negative, and worsening, migration. San Francisco’s migration-led population boom seems to be coming to a close. Looking elsewhere in California (the red lines now), we can see that Sacramento’s migration is getting more and more positive, even as Los Angeles and San Diego get more negative, and Fresno churns along in the negative zone.

Up the coast from California we can see that Seattle and Portland (purple lines) continue to have high migration, and in fact it’s getting even higher! And inland from these cities, we can see Boise and Las Vegas with high and rising migration, while Salt Lake City’s migration is about break-even, but rising. Finally, Denver’s migration has been very high, but fell this year, though it remains strongly positive.


Call it reversion to pre-recession migration patterns, call it the end of the urban inversion, or call it something else entirely, but at every turn we can see sharp deviations from recession-era migration patterns. Whether it’s the diminished pace of fracking, a turn in the Silicon Valley rent/income ratios, improved access to home credit, or some other factor, the major salient features of the recession and early-recovery period are fading from view. Of course, if we slip back into a recession, we might expect more people to move back into cities in search of jobs, lower transport costs, and rental units instead of owned housing. Until that time, however, it seems like lower-cost suburbanization is likely to continue.

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.

In a State of Migration

People Move. I Ask Why.

Lyman Stone

Written by

Global cotton economist. Migration blogger. Proud Kentuckian. Advisor at Demographic Intelligence. Senior Contributor at The Federalist.

In a State of Migration

People Move. I Ask Why.