Recession doesn't end migration

If the housing crunch is preventing more people from moving around within the country, as new Census data indicates, you wouldn’t know it to look at Hillsborough County, where migration trends seem unchanged.

Wait a little while, however, and the change may show up here, too.

That’s one conclusion from annual estimates provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, which indicate that Hillsborough County is continuing to lose about 2,000 people a year due to “migration” to other parts of the U.S., even though overall movement within the country declined last year.

A UNH researcher who studies such data suspects this anomaly may reflect the fact that estimates were made last July, after the recession made it harder to buy and sell homes but before it had cut deeply into the job market.

“If the job market for people in the early 20s in large urban cores like Boston continues to weaken, fewer of these young adults may leave Hillsborough County,” said Ken Johnson, a senior demographer for the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, in an e-mail interview.

The Census figures, released Thursday, are latest in annual estimates made by the federal bureau for every county in the nation. Estimates were not made for individual cities or towns in New Hampshire because they are not big enough.

In recent years, Hillsborough County has seen roughly 2,000 more people move away each year than arrive, counting moves only within the U.S. This figure was unchanged in the Census estimate for July 1, 2008.

Nationally, however, things definitely changed between the summer 2007 and summer 2008, a period when much of the U.S. saw what one demographer has called a “migration about-face.”

The estimate indicated a sharp slowdown in the long pattern of sprawl, in which homeowners move from cities to outlying suburban or rural counties.

Hillsborough County has benefited from that trend, with people moving north from Massachusetts for lifestyle reasons.

The change of this pattern in 2008 was abrupt. As an example, New York registered the smallest out-migration since at least 1990, while San Francisco attracted more people than it lost for the first time in at least 18 years.

The apparent explanation, Johnson said, is that people couldn’t move because they couldn’t sell their homes.

“People are frozen in place by the housing market,” he said.

That explanation wouldn’t apply, however, to young adults who had not yet bought a house and who move to take new jobs – the sort of people New Hampshire has been trying to attract and retain for years.

Mobility was easier for them last year because the rental market loosened as prices fell.

However, the collapse of the job market since July 2008 may put an end to that freedom, leading to the possibility that fewer people will be leaving the region – at least until the recession ends.

Internationally, Hillsborough County’s pattern is reversed but smaller: Annually, about 1,000 more people have arrived here from overseas than have moved overseas in recent years. That figure also seems unchanged in the most recent estimates.

The Census numbers are raw estimates of one-year population changes for every county in the country, due to births, deaths, movement within the U.S., and international migration.

Population change at a glance

This chart shows the estimated change in population caused by domestic migration. Figures are the estimated number of people moving into the area from other parts of the country, minus the number who left for other parts of the country. International migration is not included.

YEARS 2007-08 2006-07 2000-08
New Hampshire -2,417 -2,389 31,994
Hillsborough County -2,118 -2,086 -4,427
Rockingham County -36 -464 7,533