By Alan Blinder, Robert Gebeloff and David Leonhardt
DEC. 24, 2014
The adopted Southerners have landed this week in San Francisco and Los Angeles, in New York, Chicago and Denver. It is the new pattern in holiday travel: Thousands of people raised in California, the Midwest or the Northeast will return, albeit temporarily, from their homes in Atlanta, Memphis or Raleigh.
It wasn’t so long ago that the holiday exodus went in the other direction, and the reversal highlights a basic change in American culture. The Southeast has replaced California as the place where many people now go to find the American dream.
“You have the feeling that you perhaps might be a little more successful here than if you stayed in Southern California,” said Laura Voisin George, 52, an architectural historian in the Atlanta area. She is enough of a Californian to be planning to volunteer, again, at the Rose Parade in Pasadena this New Year’s Day – but not enough of one to live there anymore.
Since 1990, the share of residents of Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas who were born in California has roughly doubled, according to a New York Times analysis of census data. The number of Oregon, Washington and Colorado natives – as well as natives of Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York – in the Southeast has surged, too.
These migrants are crowding into airports this week, including Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport. And when they are back in their old hometowns, many will end up singing the praises of their new ones, potentially recruiting new migrants in the process.
“I love California – I love California,” said Christoph Guttentag, a San Francisco Bay Area native and dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University, where he has been since 1992. “But the prices are too high, and the commutes are too long.”
In 2012, 2.2 million – or 8 percent — of people who were born in California lived in one of the 16 states that the census defines as the South, according to the analysis. In 1990, the share was only 5.7 percent, and in 1960 it was 3 percent.
At the same time, the Southeast now sends fewer of its own natives to California and some other states.
“In the Depression and World War II, you had people leaving the South in very large numbers,” said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Research Center. “That’s reversed.”
The main reason is a version of what economists call arbitrage: Growing numbers of people have realized that many of life’s biggest costs — including housing, energy and taxes — are lower in the South, said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, which specializes in regional economic data.
House prices, for example, were already lower in the Southeast in the early 1990s than in much of California and the Northeast – and the gap has widened significantly since.
Interactive Graphic Where We Came From and Where We Went, State by State Updated charts now show two views: where people who live in each state were born, and where people who were born in a state moved to. OPEN Interactive Graphic
House prices in the Atlanta and Charlotte regions have actually risen slightly less than economywide inflation since 1991, according to the S.&P./Case-Shiller Home Price Index. In the Los Angeles area, by comparison, the inflation-adjusted price of housing has risen 31 percent over the same period. The increase has been 32 percent in New York and 50 percent in both Boston and San Francisco.
Of course, those increases reflect the enormous appeal that the Northeast and California continue to have, as the country’s economic, political and cultural centers. Yet living in their most desirable areas has come to be something of a luxury good.
With incomes growing only slowly for many American households over the last 15 years, the South has taken on a greater middle-class appeal. That the region has been more aggressive about building new homes plays a role in its affordability. It has expanded its housing stock more rapidly than other regions, avoiding a sharp run-up in housing costs.
Mr. Guttentag, Duke’s admissions dean, remembers the “sobering observation” he had years ago: “I could not afford to buy the house I grew up in.”
Cecilia Eifert, a California native who lives in Peachtree City, an Atlanta suburb, largely because her husband works for Delta Air Lines, estimates that their current house would sell for less than $1 million – but more than $2 million in Southern California. “What you can get in California versus what you can get here, oh my gosh, it’s night and day,” she said.
Ms. Eifert does share two common complaints of many of the new Southerners: the lack of scenic beauty, at least compared to California, and the lack of transportation options.
Atlanta has among the worst traffic in the country, but unlike many of the other regions with packed roads – Boston, New York, San Francisco, Washington – Atlanta has a weak mass-transit system. Even Los Angeles, with its notorious traffic, is expanding public transportation.
The absence of good train and bus options across much of the South is a flip side of its lower taxes. Many areas lack the money to expand or repair mass transit.
Whatever the drawbacks, many of the Southern migrants say they are happy with their move. In particular, they say that places like Atlanta, Nashville and the Greenville area of South Carolina still have their original advantages – lower cost of living and slower pace of life – but have also become more cosmopolitan. The options for good food, music and art, among other things, have blossomed.
For better or worse, depending on your views, the migration patterns have also begun to change politics. The Democrats’ miserable showing in 2014 notwithstanding, the party now wins a substantial number of votes in Georgia and North Carolina – not to mention Florida and Virginia – from natives of the Northeast and the West.
Years ago, Mr. Guttentag was eating dinner back in California with friends, and they could not understand why he had chosen to make his life in North Carolina. To them, the South seemed “exotic and not well understood and slightly mistrusted,” he said. “Now, you talk to people and, they say, ‘Yeah, I know someone who moved there.’”
As an admissions officer, Mr. Guttentag has also participated in one of the causes of the trend: the nationalization of the college-admissions market. The number of high-school students at Duke from California has roughly doubled since the early 1990s, and other Southern colleges also attract more students from outside the region than in the past. A fair number of those students end up staying after graduation.
Over all, more than 40 percent of North Carolina residents in 2012 were born in another state; a generation ago, it was less than 25 percent. Similar increases have occurred in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. And the increases often have a self-sustaining nature to them.
James and Sarah Terry – who both teach at colleges in the Atlanta area and have two small children – miss much about their life out West. “You might have said we left Seattle kicking and screaming,” said Mr. Terry, in an interview from Napa, Calif., where the Terry family is for the holidays. She added, “We were just really sad to leave.”
Yet they were able to buy a house in Atlanta, and the weather lets them have a garden. They have no immediate plans to leave.
“Sarah’s parents have been talking about moving to Atlanta if we end up staying there long term,” Mr. Terry said. “Maybe if the younger crowd sticks around, their parents will retire there and you’ll have more permanent families.”