Mass. Migration: An Analysis of Outmigration from Massachusetts Over the Last Two Decades

By Peter Ciurczak

April 4, 2024

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The population of Massachusetts has increased over the past couple of decades. But this overall expansion has masked a trend of growing concern: the accelerating outmigration of longstanding residents to other parts of the country. Were it not for offsetting growth from international migration, we’d have been losing population for years. In fact, we’ve recently seen domestic outmigration outpace international in-migration, and our overall population shrank in 2021 and 2022 for the first time in years.

Population changes are more than just numbers. When growth slows and people leave, we all lose out. We lose political power—as we did during redistricting in 2012, where Massachusetts lost a U.S. House district. We can lose economically, as fewer businesses and jobs are created leading to tax revenue shortfalls needed to support Massachusetts’ robust safety net and other services. And we can lose part of our identity, as those who leave take with them ideas and culture contributions that might have found a home here.

So, to understand better the changing population of Massachusetts, this brief looks at some of the trends driving this change, from births and deaths to a focus on domestic migration to and from the state.

Birth, Death, and Movement

Populations grow in two main ways. They can grow naturally through births and deaths, and through migration. On the first measure, births have been slowing in Massachusetts for years, and as of 2022 the state averaged only about 1.43 births per woman, one of the lowest state rates in a country that is also seeing declining birth rates. On the other side of the ledger, deaths have increased. Put simply, we are trending ever closer to a natural decrease.

With fewer births and increasing deaths, the role of migration becomes increasingly important. And it is critical to distinguish between two specific types of migration. The first is international (im)migration (the dark blue line, below), people moving from abroad to settle in Massachusetts. Here the trend is clear—immigration has been powering growth in Massachusetts, and without it the state’s population would have begun contracting years before the pandemic.

The teal line measures the second part of migration—people moving out of Massachusetts to other parts of the U.S. That line shows that tens of thousands more individuals each year are moving out of Massachusetts than are moving into the state. Their story is what we’ll be focusing on for the remainder of this brief.

Who Stays, Who Goes?

We typically measure net migration; that is, people coming to the state minus those leaving. But it can be helpful to put those numbers in context, as we do in the graph below. For instance, the 30,000 net White residents who left Massachusetts in the averaged years 2021–2022, were in reality made up of 140,000 residents who departed the state, compared with 110,000 who moved here. And across almost every grouping—race and ethnicity, income, educational attainment and age—more individuals made the decision to leave than come.

This net outmigration is part of a longer term trend, which we show in the graph below, presenting net domestic migration all the way back to 2006. Between 2006 and 2022 for instance, Massachusetts lost more than 307,000 White individuals, or roughly 7 percent of the state’s White population as of 2022. During that same period, Massachusetts appears to have seen a small gain in domestic migrants of color. (These data are based on survey results, so they are estimates that should be interpreted with some caution. We unfortunately had to pool Black, Latino, Asian, and “other” racial groups into a broad “People of Color” category in order to produce slightly more reliable estimates.)

Overall, though, we see declines across almost every group. Perhaps most concerning, the state is losing young adults, with higher numbers of 25–44-year-olds leaving than any other age group.

A lot happened in the 17 years of pooled data included in the graph above, so in the next sections, we show yearly trend data for domestic migration, broken out by race, income, education, and age.

A Race to Leave

Beginning with race, net population change for White residents has been negative for the whole period, with an acceleration of losses in recent years. For migrants of color, a few years of growth in the early 2010s were followed by a slowing that likely turned to losses by 2017.

These losses are important, but they can be difficult to explain. Whether residents leave the state looking for work in specialized fields, or for retirement, or to find a new home somewhere cheaper, or for entirely different reasons, the net result is still the same: one fewer resident. Because the groups we have measured are large, we must be careful about ascribing any single reason for group trends, given they are formed of individuals with different lived experiences and diverse circumstances. So, next let’s break this data out by income, educational attainment, and age to look for other clues as to why people might move.

Money Can’t Buy Happiness

Since about 2009, Massachusetts has been losing individuals at all income levels. These losses are more concentrated among middle- and high-income earners, whose paths diverged markedly from low-income earners around 2017. Since then, the loss of low-income earners plateaued for a few years and ticked less negative in 2022.

One dynamic at play here may be housing costs. These have grown precipitously from 2018, with prices for typical homes increasing 20 percent in 2021 and 33 percent in 20221. The availability of lower cost housing elsewhere, combined with remote work opportunities brought on by the pandemic may have had a hand in drawing away Massachusetts residents. A recent housing cost analysis from the Center for Housing Data at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership supports this reading of the data as well. They find that newly constructed housing statewide may well be out of reach for good portions of middle- and high-income earners. And if we add these constraints to Greater Boston’s extraordinarily low vacancy rates across both new and old build homeownership and rental opportunities, it may be that even for high-income individuals looking to rent or buy, there is simply insufficient housing to go around. That does leave the question of lower-income residents, who when faced with the same cost challenges might be expected to seek out bargains or opportunities elsewhere. But unlike many other states, Massachusetts has a robust safety net and meaningful spending on low-income housing. For low-income individuals who would have to spend valuable time and effort to seek new housing out-of-state, moving may not make sense as a result.

Degree of Exodus

Massachusetts is also losing residents with and without college degrees, with a slight acceleration in recent years for those with a bachelor’s degree or greater.

It’s likely that at least some of these domestic migrants with degrees are recent undergrad or graduate students returning home, while others may well be moving to find work or cheaper housing. Here, we are faced with the same challenges as in our race and ethnicity grouping. Both populations with and without college degrees are large, and individual reasons for movement may be quite varied.

Time and Tide

It is only recently that net migration totals across Massachusetts age groups began to move meaningfully in different directions. The biggest change is a large and growing net loss of 25–44-year-olds, such that by 2022 the net loss of this group makes up about three-fifths of the total losses by age group.

One way of thinking about trends within this graph is to focus on life age and stage; that is, where individuals are in their lives and what they’re doing. A large portion of our youngest group are likely college students from the Commonwealth, who while leaving home at 18, may return post-college. The same dynamics are at play for out-of-state students coming to college in Massachusetts. In contrast to college-going youth, 25–44-year-olds cover a wide spectrum of experiences. They are recent graduates, young professionals, folks looking to start a family or buy a home. But for reasons we’ve discussed previously, many of these individuals are simply leaving, likely due in part to high housing costs.

Among older residents, losses of 45–64-year-olds and 65+ populations are low and stable. Here as well, housing may be a useful clue. More than 70 percent of these groups are homeowners as of 2022, as compared to a 44 percent homeownership rate among householders younger than 452. For those who have homes in Massachusetts, who can sit on those investments and may even have paid them off, moving may be a less appealing proposition. This stability likely also impacts those who are 65+ and retired—making them less likely to leave paid-off homes to open new mortgages or rentals in sunnier states. Still, we are losing thousands on net from these groups, even as their more stable housing situations may be mitigating more pronounced population loss.

Growing Forward

Massachusetts has a lot going for it. A robust tech sector, a diverse and growing immigrant community contributing to all parts of our economy and culture, and world class educational and medical institutions. But in the here and now, Massachusetts is regularly losing more of its existing residents than gaining those coming from other parts of the country. White or a person of color, low-, middle- or high-income, college educated or not, for many Massachusetts residents, it may be cheaper and easier to build a life somewhere else. And this loss of talent, creativity, and capital compounds on those remaining; in diminished services, less political representation, and reduced vibrancy. If Massachusetts wants to improve the value proposition, then we must find a way to tackle the issues that are driving people from the state.

  1. Zillow Home Value Index, January to January prices. Seasonally adjusted.
  2. 2022 1-Yr American Community Survey
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