Americans are free to live where they choose

If you were an American living in Maine who just landed a job in a big city in Missouri, you would face some work. You would have to pack up your things, secure new housing, and research local fees and services in that city.

But you would not have to worry about checking in with the federal government about the move.

The situation is different for people living in China, who must abide by the Chinese Communist Party’s restrictive hukou system, which registers families and limits rural-to-urban migration.

Couple in front of sculpture showing the shape of the state of Texas, with man holding cellphone up to take selfie (© David J. Phillip/AP Images)
Gus and Mia Davis, who are moving from Washington to San Antonio, take a selfie at a rest stop along the way. (© David J. Phillip/AP Images)

Americans have always enjoyed freedom of movement. When they move, they likely send a forwarding address for their mail to the U.S. Postal Service. They register any motor vehicle they own with their new state’s department of motor vehicles. And if eligible, they register to vote in their new county or city.

Trends in moving

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s largest cities were experiencing slower population growth and, in some cases, losses. Meanwhile, the suburbs saw faster growth during the previous decade, according to a report from William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

In the wake of the pandemic, there have been press reports about people increasingly leaving cities for suburbs or more rural areas. Some well-off Americans have moved to second homes to enjoy open space, while leaving their city apartments temporarily vacant. Others, out of necessity, have ended leases in cities and moved in with family members or friends elsewhere to save money.

Frey isn’t ready to say that net moves out of cities will continue apace over coming years. Even recent history, he says, won’t be clear until the government releases the 2020 census count. (The U.S. census, taken every decade, counts people living in the 50 states and five U.S. territories and reports on their location, down to small geographic areas.)

“People do things in a temporary way when something like a pandemic comes along that may not necessarily indicate what’s going to happen in the future,” he says, referring to migration patterns.

Their moves, whether temporary or permanent, reflect their own individual decisions about how and where they want to live.