The Bulletin Board

UNH researcher to look at pandemic-driven migration to Northern Forest region

By: - July 20, 2021 2:41 pm
Trees and overgrowth, with a hanging bird feeder to the left.

It isn’t clear yet whether the outmigration from cities is something permanent or a relatively temporary trend. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

UNH researcher Jess Carson was awarded a Northeastern States Research Cooperative grant last month to study the pandemic-driven migration of people to the Northern Forest.

The research could serve as a preview of what the region can expect from future migration, driven by climate change or other factors.

Carson’s research, which is already underway, will focus on migration to the Northern Forest, as well as impacts on housing and local communities during the pandemic. The Northern Forest region spreads across northern New Hampshire, and into parts of Vermont, Maine, and New York.

Specifically, Carson is hoping to look at how the forest may be a primary draw to the region.

Studies have already shown that, in New Hampshire, of people who moved in 2020, slightly more came to the state than left it. About 19 percent of the people migrating to the state did so for retirement, but the most common reason was family – about 37 percent. About 29 percent moved to the state for a job, which was also the most common reason that people left the state.  

Forty percent of newcomers to the state were 65 or older, in a state whose population is aging. Only 12 percent of newcomers were between 35 and 44, with an additional 12 percent in the 45 to 54 range. The most common age range of people leaving the state was 55 to 64.

Most people coming to the state fell into the highest income category, with nearly 52 percent of migrants earning at least $150,000.

According to the Brookings Institute, America’s cities saw the most dramatic rise in departures.

“Only a few of these cities – mostly the nation’s largest – showed sharp population losses during the year COVID-19 began,” according to Brookings senior fellow William Frey, who analyzed new census data in June.  

Populations declined in large, “economically diverse” cities including New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Frey writes that it isn’t clear yet whether the outmigration from cities is something permanent or a relatively temporary trend.

Lebanon, in the state’s Upper Valley, was at the top of a list of metropolitan areas that saw the biggest change in net in-migration from 2019 to 2020. The city ranked seventh highest of 926 metro areas across the country in how many more people arrived in 2020 compared to 2019.

Studies remain to be done about the communities receiving these newcomers, work that Carson is now undertaking.  

“In the COVID era we have seen sort of anecdotally and public press like this narrative of folks kind of fleeing to rural places trying to escape the cities or the strings being cut from their place-based employment,” Carson said. “That was really the driver behind the proposed work.”

Carson, whose research interest has long focused on rural communities, intends to look at what happens to communities that are on the receiving end of the influx.

She said she will look at what it means for “people who are locals, who have always lived there” and what opportunities or strains newcomers bring with them.

For New Hampshire, which may become even more of a destination due to climate change, the findings could illustrate broader migration trends.

“I see that as very intimately connected,” Carson said. “COVID migration is really just an example of much larger potential trends that we could be seeing.”

“There are going to be all sorts of reasons why people move, climate migration being one,” Carson said. The wave of baby-boomer retirees could be another.

With new arrivals could come new tensions.

“The priorities of incoming folks don’t necessarily align with the priorities of rural residents who have already lived there,” Carson said. That’s another area she’s planning to explore through the research.

The data she’ll use to answer those questions includes change-of-address forms from the U.S. Postal Service, as well information from a Freedom of Information Act request for town-level data on people who changed their address to a Northern Forest destination in 2020, and whether the change was permanent or temporary. Forthcoming census bureau data will also be used, in addition to related Social Security data.

Carson plans to supplement the information with qualitative interviews with people working in real estate and community development, as well as migrants themselves, “to get connected with people who are newer to the region and to kind of hear from them what their motivations were, what their vision is for kind of staying in the community.”

“Are they just there to sort of, you know, find a place that’s not close to other people or are they picturing themselves becoming embedded in that community fabric in a way that could really lift places in a meaningful way?”

Carson expects to have some answers to those questions in the next 18 months to two years.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.