COVID-19’s Impact on Living and Working Migration Patterns in the U.S.

April 22, 2020
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Author: Glenn Hunter

The difference between COVID-19’s impact on California and New York — especially on New York City — could hardly be more striking. As of April 22, New York City had suffered more than 141,230 of New York state’s 258,589 cases of the coronavirus, and at least 9,500 of the state’s 15,302 deaths from the virus. That compares to just 37,343 cases and 1,419 deaths in the entire state of California. The contrast is even more striking because California’s population of 39.5 million far outstrips that of New York state, which has 19.5 million people.

Experts predict white-collar professionals will leave urban areas in large numbers.

While California’s leaders intervened earlier against the virus than New York’s, one huge reason for the disparity between the two is the sheer density of the population of New York City. New York City’s population is three times as dense as the population of Los Angeles, California’s biggest city, for example. New York City also has the nation’s highest rate of public transit use, which could be a factor in the virus’s spread. In Southern California, by contrast, just 3% of residents frequently take public transportation, according to a 2018 UCLA study.

“The less dense the population, the more easy it is to maintain physical distance from each other,” Dr. Timothy Brewer, a UCLA epidemiologist, told BBC News.

Aside from its toll on human lives, COVID-19 is likely to have far-reaching implications for where people live and how they work in the aftermath of the recovery, and population density will be an important factor. Having become accustomed to work-at-home routines with technologies like Skype and Zoom in recent months, more and more workers may flee big, densely packed metros like New York City to relocate in less expensive, safer (for both crime and health reasons) and less-dense suburbs, exurbs and smaller cities.

If the exodus triggered by COVID-19 happens as some expect, it would accelerate a trend that has been building for a decade.

According to a study of U.S. Census data by the website NewGeography.com, more than 90% of all population growth since 2010 has occurred in suburbs and exurbs, well away from urban cores. Research by Heartland Forward, a non-partisan think tank, found that smaller metros like Nashville, Austin, and Fargo, North Dakota are increasingly attracting millennials and immigrants. And ThinkWhy’s LaborIQ™ shows that while population growth in Chicago, for example, is decreasing, smaller metros, like Boise, Idaho, and Provo, Utah, rank high in ThinkWhy’s analysis of population growth.

“The movement we’re seeing now is not just a reaction to one pandemic,” Joel Kotkin, a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at California’s Chapman University, told the Washington Post. “There will be a longer impact, an acceleration of the process that was already starting. The work-at-home trend was already building, the small towns were already becoming much more cosmopolitan … and the big cities were already becoming prohibitively expensive.

“You’ll still have urban centers,” Kotkin went on. “But they’ll be less intense and more dispersed. You’ll no longer have to choose between unaffordable, overcrowded cities and incredibly boring countryside. There will be a more attractive middle ground.”

Smaller metros have become more popular among the upper middle class.

Bolstering the move away from densely packed cities may be more acceptance of telecommuting as a permanent part of the workplace. Karen Harris of the Bain consultancy contends that remote work is among the “habits that are likely to persist” after the pandemic. According to Global Workplace Analytics, which tracks telecommuting trends, regular work-at-home has grown by 173% since 2005. The company’s best estimate is that by the end of 2021, 25% to 30% of the workforce will be working at home on a multiple-days-of-the-week basis.

The Difference Between “Essential” and Upper-Middle-Class Jobs

However, these trends will not extend to every employee in every industry.

Kotkin says the one-quarter of workers who can largely work at home in less-dense locales are members of upper-middle-class professions, such as consulting, law, government, academia and the media. But barely 3% of low-wage workers can telecommute, he says, because most restaurants, small retail establishments and “personal service” establishments, like salons and gyms, require their employees to be on-site.

According to Richard Florida, a prominent urban-studies theorist, there are from 55 million to 60 million workers in “essential jobs,” a category that includes the likes of government employees and agricultural and transportation workers. And roughly 35 million to 40 million of them – including those in food preparation – need to be physically present to do their jobs.

Small, independent businesses, like eateries and retail establishments, will “experience the greatest pain” during the recovery phase, Kotkin says. On the other hand, he and others believe that tech companies especially will prosper in a post-recovery era of dispersed work and social distancing.

In addition to Amazon, which has been aiming to hire 175,000 workers, beneficiaries are apt to include industries like telemedicine, food-delivery service, streaming entertainment services, cloud computing, biomedicine and online education. Banks and finance companies, big corporations, Wall Street and Silicon Valley may be other winners in the post-pandemic world, Kotkin and others say.

Back at the virus epicenter in New York City, meanwhile, vast numbers of poorly paid, working-class, transit-dependent workers are apt to be “stuck” after the pandemic at jobs in the densest inner-city areas, if they haven’t lost their jobs already. They will not be able to enjoy the mobility of a couple like Kerry and John Dorf, who are considering forsaking their loft apartment in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood for another part of the country.

Kerry recently was furloughed from her job at Macy’s corporate office, and John, who owns his own business, is able to work remotely. So the Dorfs say they may relocate to a smaller, more affordable city like Nashville or Milwaukee.

Before the pandemic, John told The New York Times, he’d never considered leaving New York. But COVID-19, he said, “has definitely changed your perception of what’s important.”