Americans Are Moving to Cities in Droves

April 30th 2015

Thor Benson

The American population is changing, and one place we see that change is where people are deciding to live. Overall, people are increasingly giving up on rural living in favor of big city life. As of 2010, over 80 percent of the population of the United States lived in metropolitan areas.

Young people are on the move.

The biggest group of people migrating is young people.

“Generally, most people who move anywhere tend to be younger people,” William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institute's Metropolitan Policy Program, told ATTN:. “People in their 20s, early 30s, and even earlier than that if they're getting out of high school.” He said the major motivator tends to be jobs and sometimes college. Among the older people deciding to move, it's often people deciding to retire.

That being said, Frey said migration in most of the past decade has been much slower than usual. This is likely because people don't have the funds to make a move since the recession happened. “When you look at the Census Bureau's national migration rates, they're as low as they've been since the end of World War II ... It's been like that since about 2007,” Frey said. He said much of the migration that is happening has been toward the “Sun Belt areas,” which are a mix of states from Florida to Southern California.

In a paper last year, Frey wrote that population in rural counties, which make up almost two-thirds of the country’s 3,100 counties, have seen population losses every year for three straight years. He notes that rural areas have always been subject to “boom/bust cycles” in terms of population, since much of the reason people live in rural areas depends on industries like farming, construction, and manufacturing. If business is good, the population is higher, if business is bad, people get the hell out.

There are less jobs in rural America.

Rising productivity levels and competition from overseas are limiting jobs available in agriculture and manufacturing, and much of the construction is happening in or near metropolitan areas. Beyond that, climate change is threatening farming jobs in places like California, where severe droughts have killed off many farming operations.

Many of the jobs found in rural America are going to immigrant workers, often because people from those areas have lost interest in the kind of jobs that are available. “A lot of rural areas across the country are depending on Hispanics to move in to take the kind of jobs that maybe aren't as attractive to young people who grew up there,” Frey said. “That's one of the main sources of growth in a lot of those places.” He said immigration and domestic migration typically occur independently, but many of the jobs not taken by American citizens are picked up by undocumented immigrant workers. They typically work for less money, and they typically work harder.

One might think toughening immigration standards and pursuing illegal immigrants would be a way to increase the amount of jobs available in rural areas and keep people from having to move to cities for work, but it hasn't worked out that way in many places that have tried. Alabama and Georgia, for instance, created some of the harshest immigration laws in the country in 2011, and farmers were unable to find skilled and experienced workers to replace the undocumented immigrants. Both states have quietly disassembled parts of those laws after a loud outcry from struggling farmers who couldn't keep up with their production needs. Frey said that as white Americans abandon rural areas and become a smaller portion of the population, whether that's because of the aging Baby Boomer generation or increasing minority populations, there will be more minorities in the rural places.

Are people moving because of politics?

Many have tried link Americans' migration to intelligence or political affiliation, but Frey said it's probably more of an economic decision.

“My sense is that politics is a lot further down the priority list than getting a job, having a decent income and living in a house you can afford,” he said.

If the population of rural areas does continue to shrink, it could have a significant on the political world. “Unless we respond and react, the capacity of rural America and its power and its reach will continue to decline,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in 2013. "Rural America, with a shrinking population, is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we better recognize that, and we had better begin to reverse it.” He said that over 80 percent of legislators don't represent rural communities, and thus, the likelihood of laws being passed in their favor is shrinking. He predicted funding for industries in those communities could start to disappear.

With the economy slowly improving, it is likely people will start to move more often again. By current trends, those moves will probably mostly be directed toward cities. Americans abandoning rural life for city life will not only affect the makeup of those places, but it could have a significant impact on how the political world operates.