The great migration

Data shows more people are walking away from Minnesota — or aren’t coming here at all.

In this issue of Thinking Minnesota, Martha Njolomole relates how she came from Malawi, in Southeast Africa, to Minnesota. It is an inspiring story. My own journey to Minnesota was much shorter; I grew up in South Dakota. But, much as Martha came to the United States in search of opportunity, I came to Minnesota for the same reason. When I was growing up, ambitious young people in South Dakota often moved to Minnesota in search of a better job and a better life.

After finishing high school in South Dakota, I went to college and law school in the Northeast. Upon graduating from law school, I took a job with a Minneapolis law firm. Why did I do that? Because at that time, 1974, Minnesota was seen as a prosperous and desirable place to live. It was just one year after the Time magazine cover story that called Minnesota “the state that works.” That Time article was the background for the cover story in the summer 2023 issue of Thinking Minnesota, in which economist John Phelan asked the question, does Minnesota still work? Sadly, in many ways it does not.

We can debate the pros and cons of the policies that Minnesota has pursued in recent years: high taxes, massive government spending, pervasive regulations, schools effectively run by the teachers’ union, and so on. What is not debatable is that both Minnesotans and non-Minnesotans are voting with their feet. On a net basis, people are fleeing Minnesota.

American Experiment has been tracking the numbers on interstate migration ever since the Internal Revenue Service made its massive database publicly available in 2016. In a seminal paper, our Peter Nelson made three basic points: 1) More people are moving out of Minnesota than are moving in. 2) It is not just that Minnesota is losing “the rich” or the elderly. On the contrary, Minnesota loses residents to other states, on net, at every income level over $50,000, and some of our biggest losses are among the young. 3) People leaving Minnesota is only one-half of the story. Equally important is the fact that not many people from other states choose to move here.

Many Minnesotans didn’t want to believe that our state was in decline. But the data uncovered have been reinforced each time the IRS has updated its database. The pace of Minnesota’s losses is accelerating. In 2022, we recorded our largest net loss ever, 19,400 residents.

Among the states to which Minnesota loses residents, year after year, is South Dakota. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s young people in South Dakota saw Minnesota as a promised land, today, young people are moving to South Dakota for better job opportunities and lower taxes. While Minnesota lost 19,400 net residents in 2022, South Dakota gained 8,424. No doubt that is partly because since 2018, South Dakota ranks second among the states in growth in median family income.

Today, there are more young Minnesotans going to South Dakota for more productive lives than are moving in the other direction. If that is fine with you, I say, don’t change a thing. But if you want to reverse that population flow, you are going to have to enact better policies.

Martha Njolomole is one of many thousands of Africans who emigrate to America every year in search of a better life. Why can’t Minnesota be a similar beacon, not just to residents of other countries, but to our fellow Americans? Our governor’s office can put out all the press releases it wants about how great Minnesota is. But until we are a state that people move to, not away from — a state like Florida, Texas, Tennessee, South Dakota and others — those press releases will ring hollow.

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