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Impact of COVID-19 on Population Migration Remains Unclear

Some of the shorter-term health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are fairly well understood, but it’s not yet clear how a variety of longer-term demographic shifts will impact population change.

Among these are the pandemic’s effect on domestic migration, or movement of U.S. residents between counties and states. Although 2020 data showed the overall rate of moving at historic lows, coverage of “Zoom towns” and people leaving large metros for smaller communities are common.

Is there evidence of increased migration to Tennessee? First, it’s clear that there were many temporary moves in the first half of the year as college campuses closed and unemployment jumped. By June 2020, 52% of 18 to 29 year olds were living with a parent.

But what about longer interstate moves? A pandemic-induced mass migration to the sunbelt doesn’t appear to have taken hold, but a continuation of pre-pandemic trends could be in the offing:

  • National Association of Realtors showed Tennessee lost 16 residents between March and October, but listed Rutherford County at No. 8 nationally with 1,808 net population increase.
  • A analysis of USPS address changes showed that moves from large metros accelerated in 2020, but the top 10 cities that people moved from were largely unchanged from previous years.
  • U-Haul said in January that the state’s 12% increase in inbound traffic offset a 9% increase in outbound traffic, making Tennessee the top state for net gains in 1-way moves.
  • United Van Lines compared moves in 2019 with 2020 and showed the percentage of moves in the Nashville area that were outbound (35%) was unchanged, but Memphis outbound moves had increased five points to 47% in 2020.

We’ll get hard evidence for the first half of 2020 based on IRS, Medicare and Social Security data in May 2021 when the 2020 Population and Housing Evaluation Estimates are released. The final word on the second half of 2020 won’t be out until the spring of 2022.