What’s Driving Rural In-Migration?

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered some major population shifts across the US, with big jumps in newcomers to the US’ Southern and Western regions.  We also saw population upticks (albeit smaller) into many rural regions, reversing long term trends of decline in many areas.  Understanding the motivation and interests of these “movers” is an important task, helping local officials to better support these residents and offering broader insights on how to attract and retain talent.

A new study from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute reports on recent interviews with a small group of new residents in rural northern New England. The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with newcomers who moved to the Northern Forest region (encompassing ME, NH, NY, and VT) during the pandemic. These movers tended to be much wealthier than older residents, and were attracted to the region by its natural beauty and outdoor recreation assets.  Most movers had long considered relocating to the Northern Forest, noting that the pandemic was the final motivator in their moving decision.  Most newcomers also intend to stay for the long term, and hope to be a permanent part of a welcoming community.

These early findings will be supplemented as data and other information becomes available, but they already offer some useful guidance.  The factors that attracted these residents are still in place.  In response, local leaders need to find ways to accommodate growth and integrate these new residents who are seeking closer community ties.  Addressing these challenges will be complicated as we’ll need to find ways to preserve natural amenities—in the face of real development pressures–that attract talent to a region.  At the same time, new residents bring new skills and networks that can support rural development.  How can we tap into this expertise?  Finally, newcomers, especially older in-migrants are likely to place new demands on local service providers, such as health care facilities.   As these new rural talent hubs develop, they should also tap into the experiences and lessons learned from earlier efforts to support retiree attraction, which was a prominent strategy for many Southern communities over the past few decades.  You can learn more about these earlier efforts here.