The coronavirus’ impact on American society could reverberate for years, shaking the economy and even our politics to their core. But the greatest public health crisis in a century is also having another profound effect — millions of people are moving around the country as colleges close, jobs vaporize and multiple family generations cluster together to ride out the storm.
As many Americans have moved in recent months as typically move in an entire year, a recent Pew Research Center survey indicates. The trend is most apparent among young people: More than a third of people under age 30 said health or financial concerns stemming from the pandemic forced them to move in with family, take a roommate or prompted someone they knew to move, according the survey.
Pew found that 12% of survey respondents moved in the past few months — 3% because of coronavirus and 8% for other reasons. Contrast that to a typical year, in which less than 10% of Americans move for any reason, according to Census data. That figure has been on the decline for decades, with Americans today moving half as much as they did in the 1980s.
“Most reasons people who move tend to be family reasons — they’re starting families or they’re job-related,” said William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Before the pandemic, those moves have been declining and happening later in life, Frey said.
The Pew survey shows that trend sharply reversing, with people naming a wide range of reasons for moving. Nearly 1 in 4 of all movers said they moved because their school closed, while nearly 1 in 5 said they moved for financial reasons including job loss. Slightly more than a quarter said they moved because they thought the risk of coronavirus exposure was higher where they were living; another fifth wanted to be close to family.
Those aged 18 to 29 were the most likely to move and the most likely to take in a new household member, Pew found. That age group moved at three times the rate of people ages 30 to 45, according to the survey. They were also twice as likely to have someone move in with them as those ages 30 to 64.
The survey reinforces other findings that young people have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, including being more likely to lose a job and delay paying a bill than older workers are. That’s another reason that moving in with family was so common, said Dowell Myers, a professor of policy, planning and demography at the University of Southern California.
“It takes time for people to make plans. The only place you can go in an emergency, quickly, is your parents’ house,” he said.
Myers himself will host his son and grandchildren, who normally live in Texas, at his Los Angeles-area home starting next month, he told CBS MoneyWatch. His son can do his job remotely but needs help with child care, Myers said.
“It will be entertaining for, I think, about two weeks,” he added.
A permanent shift?
While many of these moves are likely to reverse, at least some appear to be permanent, with 9% of respondents telling Pew they rented or bought a place to live in after the pandemic passes.
Myers expects some of the temporary moves Pew captured to become permanent, as people get over the initial shock of relocation. “People are testing the waters, seeing what it’s like, ‘Could I really work remotely from the Catskills?'” he said. “I think a lot of people are figuring out they actually can make it work.”
The pandemic is likely to have a long-lasting effect on cities, with some experts predicting it will accelerate the emptying out of urban cores as people avoid density.
Nearly 4 in 10 city dwellers are considering moving to a more rural area because of the outbreak, a Harris poll found this spring. Last week, the National Association of Homebuilders noted that demand for new homes was rising fastest in low-density areas, including rural areas, small cities and exurbs, and that Americans were seeking larger homes in part because they expected to work from home as much if not more in the future.
“Flight to the suburbs is real,” noted NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz.
Still, how permanent the migration ends up being depends on many as-yet-unknown factors, some of which work at cross purposes. In a prolonged economic downturn, people tend to move less, as happened after the Great Recession. But the spread of the pandemic may override any economic concerns, experts noted.
“The second wave here that’s happening is quite damaging, because people were ready to blow this off and think of it as a temporary thing,” said Myers, the demographer. “Now it’s a more permanent thing. It’s a permanent threat that will make people relocate.”