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From L.A. to Boise: How Migration Has Changed During the Covid-19 Pandemic

A recent study finds Americans are moving during the pandemic at a growing rate because of lifestyle changes, remote working conditions, and job opportunities.
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Professor Daniel Weagley published a working paper on U.S. migration patterns during Covid-19.

American migration in the U.S. has seen changes in recent decades. As Americans found themselves sequestered at home when Covid-19 struck, did they stay in place or did they find new reasons to box up their possessions and relocate?

That’s the question Daniel Weagley, assistant professor of finance at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business, and Peter Haslag, assistant professor of finance at the Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management, set out to answer in their working paper “From L.A. to Boise: How Migration Has Changed During the Covid-19 Pandemic.”

Looking at proprietary move and survey data from over 300,000 residential, interstate moves over the last four years,  Weagley and Haslag discovered that higher-income Americans moved from larger metropolitan areas to outlying areas at higher rates during the pandemic than pre-pandemic times. The move data was provided by UniGroup, with major brands including United Van Lines and Mayflower.

“In our moving company data, we see that even in January 2021, over 10% of moves were influenced by the pandemic and this rate does not seem to be dissipating over time,” said Weagley.

While households were not moving at a greater rate during the pandemic – a continuance of the decline seen pre-pandemic – the reasons for moving and move locations have changed as people moving long distances (interstate) has increased over the last year. In fact, the average distance is 1,185 miles - the distance from Los Angeles to Seattle. When most of the world stopped in 2020, some Americans decided to pick up and move across state lines.

Reasons for Moving

In analyzing the data, the two researchers discovered there are numerous factors that influenced U.S. migrants to move. These include the desire to be closer to family, possibly in an effort to create a larger bubble of help with childcare, job loss, and remote work opportunities.

Respondents in high-income brackets ($100,000/year) revealed the most common Covid-19-related reason for moving was for family at 28.7%. Working from home and experiencing a job loss were the second and third most common reasons, representing 15.5% and 15% of respondents. Surprisingly, only 3% of those surveyed mentioned moving away from a higher localized spread of Covid-19 as a reason for moving.

Workers in higher income brackets were more likely to move for lifestyle changes rather than a change of jobs. They left urban areas for a slower pace and a more relaxed stance on Covid-19 restrictions. This contrasted with lower income workers who moved for new job opportunities and lower costs of living. Their findings revealed that the ability to work remotely from anywhere was a contributing factor for many migrants who were no longer dependent on local labor markets. Remote work was an especially strong motivator for high-income households with 75% of respondents who mention the ability to work remotely earning over $100,000 per year.  Additional reasons for moving included leaving behind higher rents in urban areas for lower rents in smaller towns.

Demographically, Weagley and Haslag found that middle aged people (35 – 54 years old) making over $100,000/year and households with children were most likely to have a move influenced by Covid-19.

Perhaps most revealing are motivations for moving that were tied to government restrictions around Covid-19.

Weagley and Haslag report that individuals are moving out of areas with an opposing political party in power to areas they agree with more in terms of politics and Covid-19 response. A larger proportion were moving due to perceived strict government response rather than lax government response. For example, the highest percentage of movers went from California to Texas and from New York to Florida.

Looking to the Future

Weagley and Haslag believe the ongoing migration suggests we should continue to see pandemic-related moves in the short-to-intermediate term. They find that 15% of Covid-influenced moves were due to households being able to work from home. “As we return to a more normal way of life, I expect employees will get more clarity on their post-pandemic work arrangements and, therefore, the geographic restrictions on where they can live,” Weagley noted. 

In the long term, Weagley and Haslag see changes to remote work having a greater implication on tax and political bases, businesses, real estate inventory and prices, governments, and more.

Read the full article “From L.A. to Boise: How Migration Has Changed During the Covid-19 Pandemic.”

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Daniel Weagley
Hubert L. Harris Early Career Professor

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