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Go East, Young Man (Oh, You Already Are)

• September 24, 2009 • 12:00 PM

Fleeing congestion and high taxes, America’s internal migrants must have Horace Greeley spinning in his grave.

Get your pens. Write it down. Something big has happened.

The westward expansion of the United States is over.

The phrase “Go West, young man,” attributed to New York newspaperman Horace Greeley that heralded movement of people, livestock, capital and ideas across a continent has reached its logical conclusion.

After two centuries of westward expansion, with California being a choice settling spot (there was no more continental west, after all), general U.S. migration patterns now are changing.

It seems parts of the West have become what the settlers were leaving: too crowded, too expensive and lacking in opportunity.

The general pattern reversed over the last decade, with the main out-migration occurring in California, according to a study released Wednesday by the University of Kansas School of Business.

Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics at the school, said the findings are interesting because they show “a reverse of manifest destiny” and the end of the era. But there’s a lot more intriguing data to be found in the study, which charts county-to-county migration of taxpayers from 1995 to 2006.

Here are a few tidbits:

• Americans are quite mobile; about 14 million people move a year in the United States, creating the approximate equivalent of every taxpaying household in Florida moving across a county line every year.

• There’s a population shift from large metropolitan areas (cities the size of Los Angeles and Chicago) to cities with populations of 1 to 2 million.

• People are moving to coastal areas (other than California), including the Great Lakes and other inland water bodies and areas with environmental amenities.

• The trend of out-migration from the Great Plains continues, although there is a counter-trend of regional urbanization.

• There is a strong net flow of people from large metro areas to rural areas, towns and cities of around 300,000; this group tends to have higher incomes.

• Nevada and Arizona in-migration has been strong, with Arizona averaging an additional 30,000 taxpayers a year over the period and Nevada averaging more than 20,000.

• California lost more than 36,000 taxpayers a year over the period while Florida (with its coastal areas and comparatively lower cost of living) gained an average of 63,000 a year.

Hall said there’s a host of different reasons people are moving, but “the statistics say, all else being equal, they’re moving to places with lower taxes.” (However, he adds, like the economist he is, “all things are never equal — it’s not as satisfying as finding a silver bullet, but it’s an important thing to know.”)

He noted people “want amenities but don’t want the congestion of big cities.” He said part of it is “what people perceive they’re getting for their money. No one wants to pay five-star prices for three-star services.”

He said he is particularly surprised by the income growth in southern Tennessee and added that another growth area is Huntsville, Ala. — “a very vibrant tech center.” Other states experiencing strong in-migration are Virginia and Maryland, due to growth in government, high-tech and biotech sectors.

The Carolinas are attracting retirees, and growth in and around Atlanta is creating Georgia’s in-migration, he said.

Washington and Oregon have seen consistent population increase over the study period, as well as other western states, including Colorado, Idaho and Montana.

Data were only available through 2006, so any trends resulting from the recession are not reflected in the study. However, when asked if he thought the out-migration from California would have grown in the last few years, Hall said “the patterns would look very similar, although the volumes could be bigger.”

“People were leaving the state before the real crisis hit,” he said. “A lot of it was raw costs — people couldn’t afford to live there.”

The study found, however, that income levels on the California coastline have remained consistent. “Even though people are moving, income is still flowing to the California coast,” he said.

Some things never change.

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Joan Melcher
Joan Melcher is a freelance writer and editor living in Missoula, Montana. Her work ranges from travel magazine articles to stories on breaking research.

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