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Record Wave of Americans Fled Big Cities for Small Ones in 2023

(Bloomberg) — Score a victory for Mayberry. America’s small towns, like the iconic setting of television’s The Andy Griffith Show from the 1960s, saw more in-migration in 2023 than larger areas for the first time in decades.

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The remote work boom that prompted Americans to flee urban areas for mountain hamlets and seaside towns during the pandemic continued at least through last year, according to University of Virginia demographer Hamilton Lombard. An estimated 291,400 people last year migrated from other areas into America’s small towns and rural areas, which Lombard defines as metropolitan areas with 250,000 people or fewer.

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That number exceeded net migration into larger areas for the first time since at least the 1970s, estimated Lombard, who works with the university’s Demographics Research Group.

Areas with 250,000 to 1 million people saw a net in-migration of 266,448 people last year, while areas with 1 million to 4 million people recorded only a modest gain. Areas with more than 4 million people were the big losers, shedding almost 600,000 people last year, according to Lombard’s research using US Census Bureau data.

“With a third of workdays being done remotely in 2023, Americans have more geographic flexibility and have been increasingly willing to move far from large population centers if their destination offers a good quality of life,” Lombard wrote.

The study focuses only on in-country migration, and does not include immigration from outside the US.

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The influx of people is already changing the Mayberry-esque nature of the US’ small towns. In southern Virginia, tiny Martinsville, once dubbed the world’s “Sweatshirt Capital” for its textile industry, has seen some of the state’s strongest wage growth. Its domestic migration rate ranked second in Virginia last year.

Starbucks noticed the growth and in 2021 opened its first coffee shop in Martinsville, Lombard noted in his report. Since then the ubiquitous chain has spread across other southern Virginia towns, he said.

To be sure, the continued growth of small towns depends, in part, on the work-from-home trend continuing, Lombard said. He pointed to research on remote work from Stanford University, which estimated that about 28% of paid days in the US as of March were work-from-home days. That’s down from the pandemic period, but far higher than before Covid.

“If remote work sticks around, it seems like this trend will stick around,” Lombard said.

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