CITY/STATE: Who’s Coming + Going—Surprising RI Migration Data

Monday, May 06, 2013


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If it’s true that Rhode Island is a basket case but Massachusetts is so great, why are more people moving from Mass to RI than vice versa?

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The IRS publishes statistics that allow us to track the migration of people and their income around the United States. They do this by tracking the addresses people file tax returns from. This is then aggregated to let us see where people are moving from and moving to.

Moving out of RI: Net loss

Rhode Island does lose people to migration as a whole. The IRS estimates 39,000 net people left in the 2000s and they took almost a billion dollars in income with them when they left, though this likely understates the losses since not everybody files a tax return. But there are states from which Rhode Island does draw people. Here they are, and how many citizens our state has acquired:

#1 New York: 4,369
#2 Massachusetts: 3,018
#3 New Jersey: 1,025
#4 California: 310
#5 Illinois: 207
#6 Michigan: 154
#7 Washington: 118
#8 North Dakota: 5

As you can see, Massachusetts is actually the #2 source of net imports to Rhode Island. In a sense it is unsurprising. Contrary to popular belief, sprawl is alive and well in America, and people continue to move out further from the centers of metro regions. Thus Rhode Island is well positioned to profit from this outward movement from Greater Boston.

Where do Rhode Islanders most migrate to?

Of course the fact that there are only eight states from which Rhode Island gained people means that it lost people to most of the rest of them. Here are the top ten states Rhode Island lost people to:

#1 Florida: -21,304
#2 North Carolina: -4,034
#3 Virginia: -3,885
#4 Connecticut: -3,811
#5 Texas: -2,425
#6 Georgia: -2,404
#7 South Carolina: -2,326
#8 Maine: -1,594
#9 New Hampshire: -1,215
#10 Arizona -1,156

It should come as no surprise that the retirement destination of Florida (also a place with de facto no estate tax) is the top destination. It is also tops for others as well.

What I find most curious is that Rhode Island’s migration problems have been all over the map. Looking back as far as 1995, Rhode Island was losing people and income, but it was recovering, even becoming a net gainer of people in the early 2000s, then the bottom fell out in 2003. Here’s a chart illustrating the net income flow due to migration for the state. Keep in mind the data is in thousands of dollars.

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I was not here in 2003 so can’t say what happened, but that’s when the rest of the country started pulling out of the “dotcom” recession of the 2001-2002. But what it does show is that not too long ago Rhode Island was actually able to attract people and money on a net basis from the rest of the country. 

Top 10 cities that send people to Rhode Island

They IRS does not publish data at the metropolitan area level but does do it at the county level. I have on a proprietary basis rolled this up to enable metro area analysis. So looking at it from a metro area basis, here are the top ten regions from which Rhode Island draws people on a net basis:

#1 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH: 4,266
#2 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA: 4,050
#3 Salinas, CA: 1,047
#4 Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT: 821
#5 Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT: 447
#6 New Haven-Milford, CT: 437
#7 Jacksonville, NC: 292
#8 Springfield, MA: 223
#9 Memphis, TN-MS-AR: 175
#10 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 134

Thriving Boston and New York are actually the top source of net new Rhode Islanders! The reasons for that are beyond the scope of this article, but I will say that it is not unusual to see regions that are transforming into high end economies displace middle and working class residents to lower cost surrounding regions and it would not surprise me if that were the case here. The dark side of the booms in places like New York is that they have rendered them increasingly unaffordable to ordinary mortals, even in former working class areas likes Brooklyn.

The Salinas, CA factor

The one I found most interesting was Salinas, CA. Salinas is 55% Hispanic, so I would speculate that the migration here is second order Latino. We certainly have a growing Hispanic population here. But while Salinas is heavily Hispanic it is not a big city. The fact that a city so far from here ranks so highly is worth exploration. Ethnic migration tends to be heavily network based. That is, people tend to follow others they know – family, friends, etc. It’s based on first hand knowledge transmitted to new would-be migrants. So once migration becomes established from a particular area, it keeps on coming.

Something obviously created a network migration path from Salinas to Rhode Island. Studying that might help the region to figure out how to establish new such relationships so it can reverse the tide of net outmigration.

Aaron M. Renn an opinion-leading urban affairs analyst, entrepreneur, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive in the 21st century. In his blog, The Urbanophile, he has created America’s premier destination for serious, in depth, non-partisan, and non-dogmatic analysis and discussion of the issues facing America’s cities and regions in the 21st century. Renn’s writings have also appeared in publications such as Forbes, the New York Times, and City Journal. Renn is also the founder and CEO of Telestrian, a data analysis platform that provides powerful data mining and visualization capabilities previously only available in very expensive, difficult to use tools at a fraction of the cost and with far superior ease of use.


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