Americans tame their wanderlust

Census Bureau statistics show that fewer Americans are uprooting. And when they do move, they're favoring D.C., Alaska and Texas.

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By Les Christie, staff writer

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NEW YORK ( -- Americans have tamed their wanderlust during this recession, according to the latest data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. Only about 2.4% of Americans moved from state to state in 2008, down from 2.5% the previous year.

"The mobility rate is lower than it has been in years," said Robert Lang, a demographer with Virginia Tech University. "There's a recession and a housing bust. People can't sell their homes in California and move to Las Vegas or sell their condo in Florida and move to North Carolina."

"People are hunkering down, trying to hold on to what they have," added Andy Beveridge, a demographer and sociology professor at Queens College in New York. "It's a depression, recession mentality."

Plus, a good portion of the population has reached the age where the charm of a new place is more than offset by the fetters of life and responsibilities. "A large share of the population is at the age where they're settled," Lang said. "The baby boomers have good jobs and most are not ready to retire."

Shunning the lands of sun and surf

Perpetually booming Florida may actually have fewer people than in 2007.

During 2008, 2.8% of the Sunshine State's population hadn't lived there the year before, and the net domestic migration -- the difference between Americans moving into a state and those moving out -- was negative for the first time in recent history.

Nearly 10,000 more Americans fled the land of the Dolphins and the Devil Rays than moved in, according to the Census. That followed average gains of more than 200,000 a year from 2001 through 2006.

"It looks like the first time in recorded history that Florida lost population," Beveridge said.

(That's slight hyperbole: Florida's population did drop in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II.)

California also saw a decline in the number of people coming to partake of its sand and sea. A mere 1.3% of California residents moved in from out of state in 2008. That's off from 1.4% in 2007.

For years, Americans have been fleeing the Golden State. The population kept growing only because of foreign immigration and births. All through the 2000s there has been a net loss in domestic migration, with 800,000 more Americans leaving than moving in during the three years ended in 2007. As it became more difficult to sell homes, that out-flow eased. That, combined with the newcomers, meant the population fell by only 144,000 in 2008.

The housing bust, and the harm it did to employment, seems to have pushed more people to leave bubble markets like California and Florida than have been drawn in by more affordable home prices.

"The Florida economy is based on growth and home construction," said Lang. With building projects dying on the vine, unemployment soared to 7.6% for the state in 2008. It's now up to 10.7%.

The same job problems plague many California cities, especially Central Valley towns like Stockton, Fresno and Merced. Construction-related job losses helped send state unemployment to 8.7% by December 2008 from 5.9% a year earlier. Today, some cities report breathtakingly high unemployment rates: 30.2% in El Centro; 17.6% in Merced; and 17.2% in Yuba City.

So, where are they moving?

So, if people aren't heading for the good life in California and Florida, where are they going?

D.C., Alaska and Wyoming. (Seriously.)

The nation's capital saw 7.6% of its residents arrive in 2008; Alaska attracted 6% more people to the Last Frontier (up a full percent from 2007); and 5.2% more people wanted to be Wyoming cowboys.

To be fair, however, small populations in these places convert modest in-migration increases into large percentage gains. They're each among the smallest states (or district) in the Union. That's just the opposite of California and Florida where each percentage point represents hundreds of thousands of people.

Don't mess with Texas

In terms of net migration -- those moving in minus those leaving -- Texas was the star performer in 2008, with the population growing by 140,000.

That meshes with what moving company Allied Van Lines experienced. "We moved more people here than anywhere in the U.S. in the last several years," said David King, general manager of Berger Transfer and Storage in Houston, Texas, and Allied Van Lines' largest booking and hauling agent.

The moving company recorded 5,891 inbound shipments and 3,988 outbound shipments in 2008, a net gain of 1,903. That was just slightly lower than last year's net gain of 2,041.

That influx may be due to the state's employment picture, which has remained rosier than most other places thanks to the energy industry and a welcoming business climate. Plus, home prices never cycled through a boom-bust period: They've remained affordable, which facilitates mobility.

In contrast, battered Michigan, with its housing and job woes, was the least-popular place to move to. The state experienced a net loss of 109,000 people, or 1.1%, in 2008, according to the Census. Allied said its outbound shipments totaled 2,388, more than double its inbound shipments of 1,181.

New York State lost even more people than Michigan -- 126,000 people -- but because it has a larger population to begin with, the percentage drop is just 0.7%, almost identical to New Jersey's.

Moving down the block

The Census Bureau also reported that fewer residents were moving within their home states.

The percentage of people who lived in different homes within the same state dropped to 12.6% during 2008. It was 12.8% in 2007 and 13% in 2005, when housing markets were hopping.

The decline came despite a boost in the number of people forced to move. More than 860,000 delinquent mortgage borrowers lost homes to foreclosure in 2008, about three times as many as in 2005.

More Alaskans moved within the state during 2008 than any other place; 16.3% of them occupied a different house. That increased from 14.6% in 2007.

Oklahoma (15.8%), Nevada (15.7%) and Texas (15.2%) residents also moved around a lot.

New Jersey residents, if they weren't leaving the state altogether, stayed put: 8.2% of them moved within the state during 2008.

There must be something about the Northeast: Only 9.1% of New Yorkers moved within the state, while Rhode Islanders and New Hampshire residents moved at a rate of 9.2%. To top of page

Percent of People 1 Year and Over Who Lived in a Different State
(Including Puerto Rico) 1 Year Ago
Rank State Percent
1 District of Columbia 7.6%
2 Alaska 6.0%
3 Wyoming 5.2%
4 Delaware 4.9%
5 Montana 4.7%
5 Nevada 4.7%
7 Hawaii 4.4%
8 Idaho 4.3%
9 North Dakota 4.2%
10 Colorado 4.0%
11 Arizona 3.8%
11 Utah 3.8%
13 Kansas 3.6%
13 New Hampshire 3.6%
13 North Carolina 3.6%
13 Vermont 3.6%
17 New Mexico 3.5%
17 Virginia 3.5%
19 Oklahoma 3.4%
19 South Carolina 3.4%
21 Oregon 3.2%
21 Washington 3.2%
23 Arkansas 3.1%
24 Georgia 3.0%
24 South Dakota 3.0%
24 West Virginia 3.0%
27 Maryland 2.9%
27 Nebraska 2.9%
27 Rhode Island 2.9%
27 Tennessee 2.9%
31 Florida 2.8%
32 Iowa 2.7%
32 Missouri 2.7%
34 Alabama 2.6%
34 Indiana 2.6%
34 Kentucky 2.6%
34 Louisiana 2.6%
34 Maine 2.6%
39 Mississippi 2.5%
United States 2.4%
40 Connecticut 2.4%
40 Massachusetts 2.4%
42 Texas 2.3%
43 Pennsylvania 2.0%
44 Minnesota 1.9%
44 Wisconsin 1.9%
46 Illinois 1.8%
47 New Jersey 1.7%
48 Ohio 1.6%
49 New York 1.4%
50 California 1.3%
50 Michigan 1.3%
Source: American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.
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