For generations, my mother’s family was solidly Northeastern. It was based around Philadelphia, and people rarely moved farther away than New England. But over the past two decades, all that has changed.
I am the only member of my generation who still lives in the Northeast — if you count the Washington, D.C., area as part of the Northeast. My sister lives in Colorado. My first cousins have moved to California, Colorado and Texas. Job opportunities and housing costs are major reasons for our dispersion.
My family is part of a national pattern. Over the past decade, college graduates have joined a trend that was already evident among lower-income Americans. They are increasingly moving out of the country’s most expensive metropolitan areas, according to a Times analysis of census data.
Since even before the Covid pandemic began, more working-age college graduates have been leaving New York, Chicago and Los Angeles than moving to those areas. Over the past few years — as remote work became more common — the list of regions losing college-educated workers has grown to include San Francisco and Washington. Many of the people leaving those places have moved to less expensive major metro areas, like Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Nashville, Phoenix and Tampa.
“My living room is bigger than any apartment in New York I ever had,” said Eduardo Lerro, 45, a former public-school teacher who now lives in Minneapolis and works as a consultant.
In many ways, the trend is a healthy one. Americans are responding rationally to financial incentives and building lives for themselves in new places. It helps that more cities have added amenities once associated with the Northeast and the West Coast.
“Many smaller and more affordable cities are simply more desirable than they used to be,” said my colleague Emily Badger, who did the new analysis along with Robert Gebeloff and Josh Katz. “There’s good Indian and Thai food to be found in more places. There are growing tech-worker scenes outside of the Bay Area. Many midsize cities have redeveloped their downtowns over the last 20 years.”
At the same time, the pattern highlights a major problem in many large U.S. metro areas: Housing has become so expensive that even professionals with relative high salaries are choosing to leave. Emily calls it “a pretty grim indictment of these places.” It is arguably the Democratic Party’s biggest failure at the local and state levels, given that the most expensive regions tend to be run by Democrats.
For people who chose to move, the decision can create inconveniences. My family, for example, has a harder time getting everybody together than when I was growing up. But the biggest hardships fall on working-class families that choose to remain in the country’s most expensive regions.
There are millions of such families. The relocation rate of Americans without a college degree has even declined in recent years, for complex reasons, as Emily notes. For these families, the cost of housing is a major barrier to a middle-class life.
All of which helps explain why the nascent effort to encourage more home-building in expensive regions — sometimes called the YIMBY movement, for Yes in My Backyard — may be one of the most important movements in American politics today.
Read more about the subject in recent Times coverage:
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