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Department of Social Sciences


Media stories highlighted accounts of migration away from city centers towards more rural destinations during the COVID-19 pandemic, but systematic research about how the pandemic changed migration in more rural destinations is only starting to emerge. This paper relies on U.S. Postal Service change-of-address data to describe whether and how established domestic migration systems changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on differences across the rural–urban gradient and by outdoor recreation resources. We find little evidence of massive urban exodus. We do find that out-migration from rural counties declined post-pandemic onset and has stayed low in the 3 years since, stemming the tide of net population loss in many rural places. Most rural counties that experienced net population loss prior to the pandemic saw either less net loss or net gains during the pandemic. Rural recreation counties experienced greater gains through both decreased out-migration and increased in-migration in the first year of the pandemic; but by year three, differences between rural recreation and non-recreation counties had balanced. Overall, counties across Rural America saw notable change to pre-pandemic migration patterns. This shift may benefit rural areas through long-term population stability and/or growth but might also exacerbate housing and childcare shortages.

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© 2024 Rural Sociological Society (RSS). This article has been contributed to by U.S. Government employees and their work is in the public domain in the USA. Publisher’s version of record:

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Rural Sociology

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication 1.0 License.


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