Health News

Thousands of People Moved to the Rural South During the First Year of the Pandemic. Where Did They Come From?

by Sarah Melotte, The Daily Yonder

Out of all the people who moved from larger cities to rural areas in 2021, two-thirds wound up living in the rural South, a Daily Yonder analysis of IRS data shows

Southern rural counties attracted 65% of the people who moved from metropolitan to nonmetropolitan counties in 2021. The region that attracted the next largest share was the Midwest, which had 25% of the nation’s rural in-migrants. 

The rural South is part of a larger trend of rural growth nationwide. We reported on this national trend in March, when the Census released population estimates showing that historic losses in rural America had been reversed. The estimates revealed a 0.12% growth rate in the rural South in 2021. 

With anonymized tax data from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), we were able to track how many people moved to every county in America and where they came from. That means we could see whether rural in-migration was coming from across the country, or somewhere closer to home. In 2021, 327,000 people moved from a city or suburb to a rural county and most of those urban expats came from nearby cities and suburbs.

The next most popular rural place to move didn’t even come close to numbers in the South. Only 82,000 people moved from a metropolitan area to a rural county in the Midwest in 2021, less than half the number of those who moved to Southern states.

The South also had more in-migration to rural counties than other regions on a per capita basis. 

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The above graph shows the number of people who moved from a metropolitan area to a rural county divided by the total population of that region. Even when we look at the numbers like this, the share of people moving to the rural South is still high compared to other regions. 

About  0.40% of the people living in the South in 2021 were people who moved from a suburb or city to a rural area that same year. That might not sound like a big number, but it’s 29% higher than the next highest region – the Mid Atlantic. 

Growth in the Rural South Came Mostly from Southern Metros

Our analysis revealed that most urban expats in 2021 came from neighboring metros in the same state. The pie chart shows that an overwhelming majority (98%) of people who contributed to rural growth in the Southern United States came from cities and suburbs within the South. Just over 1% came from Mid Atlantic counties, while less than a percent came from counties in the Southwest.

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Every urban expat who moved to a rural county in North Carolina came from a metropolitan area within the state. The same was true when I looked at other Southern states.

In North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Kentucky, and Tennessee, everyone who moved to a rural county from a city in 2021 moved around within the same state. The only southern exceptions were Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi. In every state except Mississippi, over 80% who moved to a rural place from a metropolitan area came from the same state. 

In Mississippi, however, only 29% of the people who moved from a city to a rural county came from within Mississippi. Almost 600 people moved from St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, just northeast of New Orleans, to rural Lauderdale County, Mississippi, almost a four hour drive north of where they came from. Economic reports show that population loss in Louisiana might be associated with  unemployment and a struggling housing market.

The same year, 468 people moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to rural Marshall County, Mississippi, about 60 miles southeast of Memphis.

Many Urban Expats Came From Raleigh and Houston

The most urban expats came from Houston, Texas. In 2021, 20,000 people moved out of Houston (Harris County) to a rural area in the South. Almost 1,000 people moved from Houston to rural Walker County, Texas, 77 miles north of Houston. And another 900 people moved to rural Polk County, Texas, about 90 miles northeast of the city.

The second city where the most urban expats moved from was Raleigh in Wake County, North Carolina. In 2021, 18,000 people moved out of Raleigh into a rural county and all but 54 of those people moved to another county in North Carolina. Almost 200 people moved from Raleigh to Moore County, North Carolina, a rural county about 65 miles southwest of the city.

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But just because 200,500 people moved to the South in 2021, that doesn’t mean the actual population grew by that much. Because the IRS data doesn’t record the number of births and deaths, we don’t get a full picture of population change with that dataset alone.

For example, 379 people moved to rural Rabun County, Georgia, in 2021, but the county’s total population change that year only added up to 174 people, according to Census estimates. That’s because some residents moved out and others died that year.

So although the South had the most in-migrants, the region was not the biggest contributor to the overall increase in U.S. rural population in 2021. When we took into account out-migration and deaths, the net gain in rural population in the South was about 20,500 residents. That’s an increase of 0.12% from the previous year. 

The region with the most rural growth that year was the Interior Northwest. Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho added 31,983 residents to their rural population in 2021, a 1.87% increase from the previous year. New England fell right behind the Interior Northwest, increasing their rural population by 0.78%, or 12,368 residents. 

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.