AMERICA'S GRAY AREA DILEMMA

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America has its movers and shakers, and then again, it has plenty of just plain movers. When you picture the future trends in moving, it's logical to imagine a massive migratory wave to warmer climes by Baby Boomers reaching retirement, cashing in on their homes in the cold states and resetting the landscape of the rapidly expanding Sun Belt.

But the story that comes out of looking at America's recent moving patterns, an alarming one at that, is not about a Boomer exodus southward. The real story's about young people pulling up stakes in the Northeast and Midwest and dispersing to better jobs and more affordable places to live, where the weather often happens to be a lot better too. The local, county and state economic and cultural implications are daunting as towns and regions in many areas of the nation get older as young adults make tracks.

Nationally, the rate at which people move from one place to another in the U.S. is at all-time low: less than 1 person in 7 moved between 2002 and 2003. That means about 3 million fewer movers than a decade earlier. Despite that low rate and the drop in the number of movers, almost 39 million Americans changed their residence in that 12-month period, averaging about 74 movers every minute of every day for the year.

Still, most of them don't go far: 60 percent stay in their home county, and another 20 percent move to another county in the same state. Between 2002 and 2003, the Census Bureau estimates that 7.6 million people moved to a different state. That's down from a peak of 8.4 million between 1999 and 2000, but not that radically different from the annual average number of interstate movers over the past 20 years.

The number of people who make interstate moves appears to rise during recessions and fall when nearby jobs are easier to find. But in most years less than 3 percent of the population makes an interstate move and less than 1 percent move to another region.

Most interstate moves are to a neighboring state. Thousands of people move from Massachusetts to New Hampshire every year, for example, and many of them still keep their job in Massachusetts. Over the past several years, only about 2.7 million movers left one region for another, or about 1 in 3 people who moved between states.

On balance, more of those interregional movers decide to leave the Northeast and Midwest than move to those regions. This has been a long- term trend with about two-thirds of the out-migrants from the Northeast and Midwest going to the South and about one-third going West. But the persistence of this pattern will have profound long-term impact on the economy of those states and regions where the out-migration is the highest.

The Census Bureau estimates that people have been moving out of the Northeast and Midwest at a net rate of just over 30,000 a month for the past eight years. A total of about 100,000 a month moved out, but about 70,000 moved in. From 1995 to 2003, that meant a net loss of 2.5 million residents, about half of whom came from New York state.

Such a high rate of net out-migration would be causing much alarm, and in some states actual population loss, if it were not more than offset by the inflow of an average of 37,000 immigrants a month to those two regions. Those new arrivals, however, have tended to cluster in a few large cities and have not yet caused any widespread population growth.

A few places in the South and West also have net out-migration. For one thing California has certainly lost its attractiveness as a destination. Since 1995, that state has seen a net loss of about a million residents to other states. But it's unlikely they've been missed in a state which has over 35 million inhabitants and has taken in well over 2 million immigrants in the past eight years.

People change their address for any number of reasons. If they move locally two-thirds of the time it's to improve their housing situation. But the No. 1 reason anyone moves a long distance is to get a new, and hopefully better, job. The Census Bureau reports that 2 in every 5 people who move more than 500 miles do so for job related reasons.

When work is not an issue, people move long distances mostly for family reasons, such as being closer to some family member or a change in marital status. But whatever the reason, most people who move from one region to another are under 35 years old.

More than half of all adults who moved to a different region (55 percent) were 18 to 35 years old, 19 percent were 35 to 44, 19 percent were 45 to 64, and only 7 percent were 65 or older. It's pretty clear from that age distribution of interregional movers that after age 45 most people are very reluctant to move far away from where they have put down roots and may have family or friends.

A small percentage of the people who leave the Northeast and Midwest for the West or the South are older people or retirees. But most of the movers are young people looking for a better opportunity and perhaps a more exciting lifestyle. The long-term consequences of this steady loss of younger residents from the Northeast and Midwest include a more rapidly aging population and sluggish economic growth in these areas.

When young adults leave a region they take with them not only the children they now have but any future offspring they might have as well. The result is a decline in birth rates and, in parts of those regions with high out-migration, absolute population loss because the number of births becomes less than the number of deaths resulting in negative natural increase. This is already the case, for example, in 6 of every 10 Pennsylvania counties.

Another result of this high out-migration of young people is to increase the percentage of older people and push up the median age. Seven of the 10 oldest states in the nation in terms of median age are in the Northeast where nearly half the population is 40 or older.

The median age will rise over the next decade, however, in nearly all states because nationwide the highest growth will occur in the 55 to 64 and 65 to 74 age cohorts. The difference between the regions is that in many parts of the Northeast and Midwest there will be little, if any, growth in numbers of children and young adults.

This unbalancing of the age distribution will ultimately have a negative impact on economic growth because people over the age of 55 have, in the past, worked less, earned less and spent less. According to the 2002 Consumer Expenditure Survey, a typical household age 55 to 64, spends $3,300 or 18 percent less annually on food, clothing and shelter than a household 35 to 44 years old.

How to attract a few million young people to move back north, and encourage increased immigration to more suburban and rural areas in an effort to re-balance the demography of the Northeast and Midwest, may become a major topic of discussion over the next decade in state capitals across those regions.

CROSS-COUNTRY

Interregional net migration 2000 to 2003

DOMESTIC MIGRANTS IMMIGRANTS
Northeast -705,000 889,000
Midwest -506,000 557,000
South 1,019,000 1,353,000
West 192,000 1,391,000
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
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