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Regional Policy Report

Understanding Migration Trends to Prepare for the Post-Pandemic Future

As the country has emerged from the pandemic, the places where people have traditionally lived and spent their money have shifted. Considering how our region has fared relative to the rest of the nation, this analysis reveals the region’s strengths and weaknesses and points to seven key insights that should guide policy decisions as we prepare for the post-pandemic years.

Executive Summary

As our region and the world emerge from the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we face a new set of challenges related to stabilizing or growing our populations. Population growth is closely intertwined with economic growth, and it is easier for individuals and families to prosper when their regions are moderately growing. In the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s region of responsibility, known as the Fourth District, some metro areas have had solid population growth over the last decade, including Columbus, Lexington, and Cincinnati. However, many more have either barely grown or have experienced population declines. Due to our country’s aging population and falling fertility rates, population growth is projected to be very slow over the next decade. Soon, a majority of regions in the Fourth District and the United States will have declining populations unless they can retain more residents or attract migrants from elsewhere in the country. This report presents an array of facts about population change and migration in particular. Understanding these facts can help regional policymakers formulate policies to help their regions grow and prosper.

Internal migration in the United States has been on a long, slow decline since the 1980s. Millions of people still move each year, but as the decades pass, a smaller and smaller fraction of the population is willing to head out to find new opportunities elsewhere. When people do move, they are motivated mostly by work opportunities if they are young and have much of their careers ahead of them. Late-career workers and retirees tend to move to places that are less expensive to live in and have pleasant weather and other amenities. Where does this leave the regions of the Fourth District? Metro areas such as Columbus and Lexington that have added jobs and people recently will probably be able to continue this momentum in the coming years. Other regions in the Fourth District might need to turn their attention to their current populations and try to benefit from the migration slowdown.

The results presented here show that many of the metro areas in the Fourth District are low-migration places. Relative to other areas of the country, they have lower rates of people arriving, but they also have lower rates of people leaving. Using panel data to observe people over many years shows that many young people who leave the region return a few years later.

The sizable waves of retirements occurring in the Fourth District are likely to have a stabilizing effect on our regional economies. Fourth District regions have more workers near retirement relative to areas across the country. While some retirees move to retirement destinations, the vast majority choose to age in place. As they retire, they will begin collecting their Social Security income, spending their retirement savings, and using Medicare. These things will bring additional revenue into the Fourth District. At the same time, retirements will create vacancies and opportunities for younger workers to remain in the region.

Understanding what successes the Fourth District may or may not attain by emulating other regions is helpful for regional policymakers to consider. Across the country, metro areas that are home to their states’ capitals or flagship universities grow significantly faster than other regions. Both Columbus and Lexington have grown their populations to a great extent by drawing migrants from other parts of their states. This suggests that slower growing regions in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia could benefit from searching for successful policies in places that are not capitals or college towns or seeking a share of the benefits of hosting state agencies and flagship universities.

Migrants to the Fourth District are more likely to become first-time homeowners than people heading to other areas of the country. Also, the Fourth District’s metro areas are relatively well stocked with the type of urban neighborhoods for which highly educated young workers display a preference. The pandemic’s loosening of the connection between people’s locations and their employment will create a new opportunity for this region to compete for the people who work for employers in the extremely expensive coastal cities: This region can offer an urban lifestyle or spacious home for a fraction of the cost of living closer to their employer.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Suggested Citation

Whitaker, Stephan D. 2023. “Understanding Migration Trends to Prepare for the Post-Pandemic Future.” Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Regional Policy Report.

This work by Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International