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Copyright 1998 by the Wyoming Department of Employment, Research & Planning


Population Migration Flows Among the Mountain and Plains States:
An Introduction to Regional Labor Market Analysis

by: Phil Brooks and Mike Evans


This is the first attempt by the mountain and plains states (see Table 1 and Table 2 for states included in the region) to share data and analysis about the regional economy as a whole. The ten states in the region (see "List of Contacts") only make up eight to nine percent of the total nation's population, employment and Gross Domestic Product (GDP), although the rate of growth in the region is much higher than at the national level for all of these variables (see Table 2, regional establishment survey employment increased 2.9%, 1996-1997). Also, the proportion of the adult population in the labor force in the region is much higher than the nation as a whole. The study of economic and demographic linkages between states and sub-state areas is part of regional analysis. Regional in-migration as a whole (476,658) was only 10.6 percent over out-migration (430,939) or 45,719 persons, but confirms the finding that the regional economy is growing faster than the nation's (see Table 1).

This article describes the flow of people in the region. The migration flows described in Table 1 show linkages among states, some of which are obvious. Population migration, of course, is also one portion of labor supply, and this article focuses on these population linkages. Table 1 shows migration flows gleaned from individual income tax returns, available from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The data are for the last available period, 1995-1996. Incidentally, similar data also are available at the county level.

Reading across a row in Table 1, the flow can be seen from each state to other states in the region. For example, the IRS tabulated a flow of 2,017 from Colorado to Iowa over this period. The flow from Colorado to all other states in the region was 22,438; the flow to areas outside the region was 109,070; the total flow was 131,508 to all areas, with a computed regional gross migration out-flow share of 17 percent. Reading down a column, the migration flows can be seen from different states within the region to a specific state. Again using Colorado as an example, the flow of people from Iowa to Colorado was 1,999. The flow to Colorado from all states in the region was 22,528; the flow from areas outside the region was 139,049; the flow from all areas was in turn 161,577, with a computed regional in-flow share of 14 percent.

Subtracting the regional out-flow from the in-flow computes net internal regional migration. For Colorado, the net migration that just accounts for states within the region was close to zero, an estimated 90 more people moved to Colorado from the other mountain and plains states than left.

IRS understates gross migration flows since some people are not required to file tax returns. Since the IRS can compile flows only from tax returns available for both 1995 and 1996, the data should be used with caution.

A further inspection of Table 1 yields several observations: First, two pairs of states share Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). By its very nature, a MSA is an economically and demographically integrated area. Nebraska and Iowa share the Omaha-Council Bluffs MSA along with the Sioux City MSA; Missouri and Kansas share the Kansas City MSA. Thus, one would expect people to move from one part of the area to another, just like people move from one part of a small community to another. For these three MSAs, a state boundary splits them and thus the within MSA moves get tabulated as interstate moves along with the rest of the cross border migration. The flows between these pairs of states are higher than they would be otherwise as shown in Table 1.

The same is true when looking at state data in the region. Labor markets and population know no boundaries, thus wages, labor shortages and surpluses determine market boundaries. For example, looking at Table 2, Nebraska, Utah and Colorado have high wages and low unemployment rates caused by labor shortages thus attracting labor and population to the state.

Second, migration flows among contiguous states without major geographic barriers are also higher. This is common sense, since distance is an impediment to moving. Table 1 shows strong flows among neighboring states.

Third, the migration data do not strongly link Utah and Colorado to other states in the region. Both are in the southwest corner of the mountain and plains states, with regional share flow percentages of 17 percent or less. For Utah, the state of California was responsible for the largest migration flow both ways. For Colorado, California represented the largest in-flow and was second to Texas in out-flow.

Fourth, the states of Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming have the strongest links to other states in the region for the 1995-1996 period. Each of these states borders five or six other states in the region. The contiguous areas factor alone explains much of this phenomenon.

Fifth, particular states have very small linkages to each other. North Dakota and Utah had flows between them of only about 150 people. Montana to Iowa and Wyoming to Iowa flows were only about 250. Flows between many other pairs of states fell into the 250 to 550 ranges. Principle reasons for these small linkages are distance and the population base of sending and/or receiving states.

Only some states in the region have strong connections to each other through migration. This is primarily due to the size of the region with only ten states and vast geography. Another factor is that some states' labor and population data link markets to a larger urban state outside the region. Populations and labor markets link North Dakota to Minnesota and connect Montana to the state of Washington.

Phil Brooks is State Economist with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

Mike Evans is Senior Economist and supervisor of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) programs with Research & Planning in Wyoming.


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