The Great American Migration

Margaret Richardson Contributor
The Great American Migration
Read Time: approx. 2:01

Cover Photo: Public Domain

Living arrangements in the US are shuffling as people try to escape urban coronavirus hotspots. Colleges across the country have shuttered and transitioned to online learning, sending hundreds of thousands of students home. Companies have closed their offices and employees are working remotely. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018,  29% of American workers had the option to work from home. Though that number has grown in the past month as companies join in the fight to flatten the curve, working from home still isn’t an option for everyone. Healthcare professionals, delivery people, and other essential workers are still on the front lines. 

Of the people who are able to transition from conference rooms to Zoom calls, many are opting to leave urban centers and stay with family or friends in less densely populated areas. This trend could have lasting implications on the urban-rural divide in the US.

Some rural areas worry that people fleeing cities will spread the virus and will overwhelm small local hospitals. For example, New Yorkers are flocking to Florida—but to protect its permanent residents, especially those who are elderly, the Sunshine State is enforcing two-week self-quarantines for anyone arriving from New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut. In the Florida Keys, police have set up checkpoints to keep out newcomers who could be carrying the virus. 

Other areas where city-dwellers own second homes are also trying to guard against an influx of new arrivals. In North Carolina’s Outer Banks, police are only allowing permanent residents to cross the bridge from the island to the mainland, since the area only has one 20-bed hospital. 

Many urban millennials who have the option to do so are also traveling home. This demographic is weighing concerns about spreading the virus with a desire to save money during economic uncertainty, to stay healthy, and to feel less isolated. According to Lara Fielding, a clinical psychologist, this mass migration home is understandable: “Right now, there’s so much uncertainty… The most natural thing in the world is to want to bond and affiliate with our safe cohort during this time,” she said.

Real estate investors, city government officials, and others are wondering if this shift from urban to rural areas will be temporary or if it will have longer-lasting implications. 

Some analysts see it as an acceleration of a trend that was already beginning. As author Joel Kotkin put it, “The movement we’re seeing now is not just a reaction to the pandemic…The work-at-home trend was already building, the small towns were already becoming much more cosmopolitan, with more and better coffee places and restaurants, and the big cities were already becoming prohibitively expensive.” 

However, urbanist Richard Florida disagrees, saying, “Look back at the history of 20th-century pandemics, they have not budged the fundamental force of urbanization,” he said. Florida also added, “What followed the 1918 flu pandemic was the Roaring ’20s, which sparked a decade of great city building.”