America Keeps Moving to High Opportunity Cities


Americans migrated in massive numbers to large Sun Belt metro areas and fast-growing suburban cities between 2021 and 2022, according to newly released Census data. These patterns reflect the age-old inclination of Americans to seek out places offering good economic opportunities and affordable quality of life – and run counter to early press reports on the data.

Media reporting on the Census Bureau’s latest release suggests that pandemic-era demographic shifts started to reverse last year, with a return to core cities on the East Coast and elsewhere. The population of Manhattan island grew slightly between July 2021 and July 2022, for instance. But a closer look shows two key demographic trends remain intact: migration from large coastal and Midwest metros to the Sun Belt and movement from core urban areas to suburbs.

Some core counties – like Manhattan’s New York County – eked out modest growth over the past year, but the main reason wasn’t inbound migration from elsewhere in the United States. It was the fact that immigration rebounded from depressed pandemic levels, when emergency restrictions caused a large fall-off in immigrant arrivals.

Booming Sun Belt metros

The top 10 destinations for absolute population growth over the last year are all Sun Belt metros. Four are in Texas: Dallas-Fort Worth (#1), Houston (#2), Austin (#6), and San Antonio (#9). Three are in Florida: Orlando (#5), Tampa (#7), and Jacksonville (#10). Third-ranked Atlanta, Georgia; fourth-ranked Phoenix, Arizona; and eighth-ranked Charlotte, North Carolina, round out the list. All 10 ranked among America’s fastest-growing metros from 2010 to 2020. And all 10 score high in a George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative study of opportunity and economic mobility in U.S. cities.

Meanwhile, the 10 metros that lost the most people over the past year are all places where population stagnated between 2010 and 2020. These include five on the coasts: New York City, which saw by far the largest decline; Los Angeles; San Francisco; San Jose; and Philadelphia. This group also includes Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and New Orleans.

The same pattern holds for net inbound migration rates from elsewhere in the United States, measured as a percentage of 2021 population. Among America’s 100 largest metros, five of the top 10 for net domestic in-migration rates over the last year are in Florida (North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota, Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville); two are in Texas (Austin and San Antonio), two are in other Southeastern states (Knoxville, Tennessee, and Charleston, South Carolina), and one is in the Mountain states (Boise, Idaho). The 10 metros with highest net out-migration rates include New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose.

Contrary to stories emphasizing slowdowns in the Sun Belt, geographic mobility retreated modestly across the country from the extraordinary pace of the first full pandemic year, 2020 to 2021. Existing U.S. home sales, for instance, were down 18% in 2022 compared with 2021, reflecting the surge in mortgage interest rates. It was also inevitable that long-distance moves would diminish somewhat as Americans partly returned to offices from the COVID-19 work-from-home experiment, which untethered millions of workers from traditional workplaces.

Read the rest of this piece at

J.H. Cullum Clark is Director, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative and an Adjunct Professor of Economics at SMU. Within the Economic Growth Initiative, he leads the Bush Institute's work on domestic economic policy and economic growth. Before joining the Bush Institute and SMU, Clark worked in the investment industry for 25 years.

Photo: Yinan Chen via Wikimedia under Public Domain.