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According to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. GDP shrunk by an annual rate of 5.0% in the first quarter of 2020 – representing the largest dip in GDP since the Great Recession. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the road to economic recovery is long and complex, particularly in the Bay Area – a region already experiencing high housing costs, income inequality, and a negative net domestic migration of residents in recent years. While it is still too early to say how migration might play a role in a post-COVID-19 Bay Area world, migration data from the California Department of Finance and the American Community Survey during the Great Recession years can offer a representation of how households in the region may be impacted by the current recession, while also revealing demographical information about what households are most prone to migrate to and from the region. 

Analyzing migration movements can be a powerful tool for understanding how an area has changed or been affected by economic and social shifts. The United States has experienced several domestic migrations throughout its history that have shaped not only the economic climate of the country, but also the demographical representation of the country. During the mid-19th century, the U.S. saw a mass migration of people from eastern states to the western states. The Great Depression and the dust storms of the 1930s set in motion the Dust Bowl Migration, which saw over 2 million residents leave Dust Bowl states for western states, with many moving to California in search of work. In the 20th century, the southern states saw a mass migration of Black residents to cities in the north and west. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 Current Population Survey, 10% of people in the United States (32.4 million) moved between 2017 and 2018, with 1.2 million people moving to the South. 

The 2017 state-to-state migration flows from the American Community Survey found that Florida had the most domestic in-movers than any another state (566,476), with Texas and California as the highest for immigration flows. Out of every state however, California had the most domestic out-movers (661,026), with Texas and New York as the next highest outmigration flows. Each of these migration movements were influenced by social and economic factors, creating shifts in population change, infrastructure, job growth or loss, racial and age representation and other factors. In addition to this, the nation’s history with migration movements signals that the 2020 recession and COVID-19 pandemic will again influence migration patterns, with social and economic changes to follow.  

Population Change Since the Great Recession

The last twelve years of data on Bay Area population change reveal that net domestic migration curtailed considerably during the Great Recession years, dropping again in the negatives between 2015 and 2019. Compared to recent years, population change during the Great Recession also reflects the incremental decline in net international migration, particularly after 2008, where net international migration stabilized or did not begin to increase again until 2014. Despite this decline, the strong presence of net international migration throughout these twelve years does reinforce the notion that the region has continued to attract diverse talent from across globe, particularly to its innovation and technology hubs. Given this, in the years following and during the COVID-19 pandemic, net international migration is likely to continue to fall, while negative net domestic migration may increase further as residents look to more affordable regions to live in. 

So, what can we learn from the households that came to and left the Bay Area during the Great Recession, and what insights can these learnings provide for understanding migration patterns during and in the years following the COVID-19 crisis? The following analysis uses American Community Survey data from 2008 to 2011, capturing the eighteen-month period of the Great Recession. The data represents individuals that moved during the previous year and represents each head of a household, rather than all individuals in a given household (including children). The demographical data and analysis on income, educational attainment, and industry and occupations includes households with employed residents 18 years and older. 

Great Recession Migration by the Numbers

During the Great Recession, the Bay Area had a net loss of 95,677 people and 64,168 households. A total of 672,382 residents and 322,868 households left the Bay Area, with the majority of residents and households leaving in 2008. During the same time, 576,705 residents and 258,700 households came to the region. 

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Income and Age

Out-migration of households from the Bay Area was dominated by households age 25-35. These 49,388 households represent 36% of the households that migrated during the Great Recession. Households that left varied widely across income levels, with the two highest income groups (23%) being $25,000-$50,000 and $100,000-$200,000. The juxtaposition between these two income groups perhaps tell different stories as to why individuals left the region during the recession and may elude to how residents with high and low incomes may be impacted migration during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19-generated recession. 


In-migration of households to the Bay Area was also largely from households in the 25-35 age range and with incomes below $25,000. 


The Bay Area population during the Great Recession years was largely white (44.2%), 23% Asian, 22.9% Latinx, and 6.7% Black.  

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Although in-migration and out-migration of households during the Great Recession by race appears virtually the same, with over 50% of households leaving and coming into the Bay Area identifying as white, the Latinx population, which represents 22.9% of the region’s overall population, only saw 8.6% Latinx households leave the region. This may in part be due to larger families living together in a household. In contrast, 13.9% Latinx households migrated to the region during the same time. 

Race & Ethnicity

Educational Attainment

The Bay Area gained a higher percentage of households with higher degrees during the Great Recession than those that left. Of the households that left (18 years and older), 33.2% had a bachelor’s degree, and 28% had attended some college or had an associate’s degree. Of the households that came to the region, 33.6% had a bachelor’s degree, and 25.5% had a graduate or professional degree. These data points indicate that those that left were partially or highly educated, perhaps choosing to leave the region to obtain jobs in less expensive regions, while others may have been forced to leave the Bay Area due to unstable work conditions, layoffs, and furloughing. In contrast, however, the Bay Area predominately gained households that had higher degrees, indicating that despite a recession, the region continued to attract talent. 

Industry & Occupations

About twice as many households holding occupations in the Computer and Mathematical Occupations industry 

migrated to the Bay Area during the Great Recession than left. Over 4,000 workers that left the region previously held roles in Computer and Mathematical occupations, while on the other hand, more than 8,000 workers held a variety of Sales occupations, particularly as cashiers and retail salespersons. Along with households in the Computer and Mathematical Occupations industry, the region also gained employees that held occupations as managers, postsecondary teachers, and accountants and auditors.  

Featured Expert


Looking Back at the Great Recession: The in- and out-migration of Bay Area households and what we can expect during the COVID-19 crisis

  • Bay Area Council Economic Institute

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