The Great Migration Myth

Tell me if you’ve heard this story before: thanks to sky-high housing costs, over-taxation, and/or failed liberal policies, Californians, especially the middle class, are fleeing the state.

There’s one huge flaw: Californians aren’t actually leaving the state at anything like a significant rate. According the U.S. Census, between 2014 and 2015, California had the second lowest out-migration rate after Texas: slightly less than 21 out of every 1,000 California residents left. In the three years before that, California even edged out Texas. Welcome to the Hotel California.

California and Texas are both pretty big states; maybe Californians aren’t so much being forced out of the state as moving to cheaper places within it? Anecdotally, as a San Franciscan who has seen a number of my friends move to the East Bay, this feels true to me, but the data doesn’t support it. Not only does California have a rock-bottom out-migration rate, we don’t have a particularly high in-state migration rate. With 113 Californians moving within the state between 2014 and 2015, our intrastate migration rate was 32nd (Texas’s was 11th).

So how is it that anyone can make the case that Californians are being driven out of our state?

One technique is to dazzle with big numbers, as Fox News host Tucker Carlson tried to do with California Freedom Coalition VP Shankar Singam: “You’ve lost hundreds of thousands making between $100,000 and $200,000 over the past 10 years.” Do the math: hundreds of thousands over ten years is tens of thousands per year, which is the context of a state with almost 40 million people is tiny.

Another way is to bypass the numbers entirely and go with anecdotes. California is a big enough place that if you can’t find at least a few stories to support whatever claim you want to make (right or wrong), you’re probably not digging hard enough. For example, you may have seen the news about Conservative Move, a real estate company owned by a man who recently moved from California to Texas and wants to help others do the same. The company reportedly received “over 1,000 inquiries,” which in the context of California’s population is demographically negligible. Cool story though.

A wonkier approach is to focus on domestic net migration, that is, the number of people who moved to California from the rest of the U.S., minus the number of people who moved to the rest of the U.S. from California.

Why does this work? Because in California, international migration is huge. Between 2014 and 2015, 39% of the people who moved to California did so from outside the U.S., more than for any other state (or DC). California is the most popular destination for international migrants (more than 16% of international migrants arriving in 2015 chose California), but we’re also a leader even after adjusting for our population size: in 2015, 8.7 out of 1,000 new California residents were international migrants, putting us in 6th place after DC, Hawaii, Florida, Massachusetts, and Washington state.

At the same time, California does terribly in domestic in-migration. Over half a million people arrived in California from elsewhere in the U.S. between 2014 and 2015. But California is a big place; you’d never expect half a million people to move to Delawarein one year. Correcting for its population, California comes in 50th in domestic in-migration, with only 13.3 out of 1,000 residents arriving from other states between 2014-2015, beating out only New York. And for 2012-2013, we were dead last.

From a Californian perspective, this seems like a non-problem; people from other countries are just as capable of becoming Californians as people from other states. Our net migration of 1.33 people per 1,000 in 2014-2015 is not huge (we came in 31st), but it’s not like California suffers from a shortage of people.

But cut international migration out of the picture, and you can certainly make it look like a problem. To illustrate California’s failings, New York Magazine writer and former executive editor of GOOD magazine Ann Friedman wrote that “Between 2007 and 2014, more people left California than migrated here,” which, of course, is true only if you don’t count people coming from other countries. To their credit, the Orange County Register noted that California’s domestic net migration rate of about 3 people leaving for every 1,000 is “barely perceptible” and at least gave a nod to international in-migration,

One final way to make California look bad is to focus on who is leaving California. This is a promising approach because there’s no good answer: if it’s poor people are leaving, it’s because California’s faux-progressive policies are failing them, if it’s middle-class folks, it’s because California is becoming economically stratified, and if it’s the rich, it’s because they’re avoiding our foolishly high state income taxes. Tucker Carlson says it’s people making $100K-$200K/year, this article from the Sacramento Bee says it’s “truck drivers, cooks and cashiers,” and this one from Breitbart News provides a potentially shocking statistic about college graduates aged 25 to 39 without figures from any other state to provide a baseline.

And yet, the actual out-migration rates say there’s no there there. The IRS provides migration statistics broken out by adjusted gross income. These numbers only capture people listed on tax returns, but that should include the fleeing middle class, right?

Here are the out-migration rates between 2014 and 2015 for Californians listed on tax returns:

$1-$10K: 23.2 per 1,000 residents in that bracket (2nd lowest after Michigan)
$10K-$25K: 16.2 per 1,000 (lowest of any state or DC)
$25K-$50K: 11.80 per 1,000 (2nd lowest after Ohio)
$50K-$75K: 9.81 per 1,000 (4th lowest)
$75K-$100K: 9.36 per 1,000 (8th lowest)
$100K-$200K: 8.77 per 1,000 (4th lowest)
$200K and up: 11.87 per 1,000 (lowest of any state or DC)

If these numbers indicate failure, then every other state is a basket case.

As for who’s moving in? According to this whitepaper which Friedman linked to as supporting data (and might enjoy reading), most international migrants to California are both relatively low-income, and relatively well-educated. So, to the extremely dubious extent that middle-class Californians are being pushed out by immigrants, they’re being replaced by… smart poor people?

Why all the kerfuffle? A lot of this strikes me as a sort of desperate nativism, an attempt to save California for Americans. Ann Friedman is so eager to tell her story as a Californian who came from elsewhere in the U.S. that she writes off Californians from other countries. Breitbart News claims that “California is replacing [middle-class] citizens that are leaving with foreign immigrants,” and Tucker Carlson (along with many other right-wing media sites) was flabbergasted when he repeated this dubious claim and his guest shrugged it off (and yes, Tucker, he was punking you).

And yet, Americans from other states, who have every legal right to move to California, do so at rock-bottom low rates relative to California’s population size.

The story is not that Americans in California are being replaced by immigrants; California’s foreign-born population has hovered around 28% since at least 2000. Rather, California residents born elsewhere in the U.S. are being slowly replaced by native-born Californians. In 2015, California had the third smallest percentage of residents born in another part of the U.S. (16.8%), after New York (12.8%) and Michigan (16.3%).


This is why former Governor Gray Davis could blithely pass off a remark like “[Secession is] always an option for Californians if [the] executive [branch] gets out of control. We’ll just keep our money and the United States can keep theirs.” The subtext isn’t “CALIFORNIA MUST SECEDE!” so much as “this relationship is only going to work if the United States wants it to. We’re not so close anymore anyhow.”

And of course Californians should do something about our housing shortage, the main contributor to California’s high cost of living. But we should do it because paying high rents and commuting long distances sucks, not to win some sort of beauty contest where only inter-state migrants get to vote.


Statistics about in- and out-migration by state come from American Community Survey data, supplemented with net international migration data, to calculate international out-migration.

Out-migration statistics by adjusted gross income come from number of exemptions in SOI Migration data.

In- and net migration figures use latest year population as a baseline; out-migration figures use earliest-year population (for example, in-migration per 1,000 for 2014-2015 is relative to 2015 population, but out-migration is relative to 2014).

In the context of migration, “domestic” means the 50 states and DC; everything else (including Puerto Rico) is “international.”

Figures about birthplace of state residents come from this 2015 ACS data. In this context, “overseas” means other countries; people born in U.S. territories count as “other U.S.”

This article originally appeared in Fox & Hounds Daily