Denver – The Ellis Island of Colorado
12/11/20 / Kevin Raines
Denver retains its place as an initial landing spot for those who move to Colorado.
We’ve often heard that people who come to Colorado tend to come to Denver first to get their bearings and then move elsewhere in the state. We recently took a look at Internal Revenue Service tax return records to see if that’s true.
And it is! But maybe not in exactly the way we envisioned.
There’s a very interesting pattern of migration into and within Colorado. Let’s first take a look at net movement to and from the city in 2018 (the most recent year for which data are available). Note that this applies to the city of Denver proper, and not the full Denver metro area.
What this means is that we had 8,900 more people who moved to Denver from out of state than vice versa. But we had 9,800 more people who moved from Denver to other places in Colorado than vice versa. So, in other words, the city of Denver is pulling people in from other states while also supplying people to other parts of Colorado.
By the way, this doesn’t mean that Denver’s population declined, because we’re just looking at people who move, and not other population changes like births and deaths.
If you’re curious about the raw numbers that produce this net movement, here they are.
This map tells us a lot. First, we have more movement to and from places inside the state than outside, which is to be expected. Shorter moves are more common than longer moves.
Next, we see that Denver is a common destination for people who are moving inside the state, but it’s more common for Denverites to move elsewhere in Colorado than for those elsewhere in Colorado to move to Denver. This again confirms our thoughts that Denver is a major entry portal for people moving inside the state, and, and that they then disperse across the state.
And twisting across categories, we also see that those who leave Denver are far more likely to stay in the state than to leave, whereas those who arrive in Denver are only a bit more common to arrive from elsewhere in Colorado than from other states.
Of course, this pipeline from Denver to the non-Denver areas is not necessarily the same people as moving in from out of state. Some might be out-of-state migrants who land in Denver and then disperse outside the city, or it could be young Denver natives moving to the ‘burbs when they have kids, or any of a multitude of other reasons.
So the next question one might ask is, ‘where are these people going when they disperse from Denver?’ Are they heading up to the mountains? Or to the rural areas? Or just a few miles to the suburbs? The answer is pretty clear.
Nine of every ten people who move out of Denver to another part of Colorado are simply moving to another county in the Denver metro area. So, the hypothesis that people are relocating to commune with nature are off-base. A majority of the remaining ten percent are also moving to other places on the Front Range, whether north or south. Only about 5 percent of those who leave Denver for another part of Colorado are going to the Western Slope, mountains, or plains.
Among those relocating withing the metro area, most also stay close by, moving to either Arapahoe County or Jefferson County. This supports the theory that people are moving for homebuying purposes as opposed to other reasons, and perhaps keeping other connections with Denver.
Now, what about those people who are moving into Denver? Well, we see the same pattern. So maybe the real conclusion is not so much that people are moving within the metro area for a particular reason, but that for many people that boundary between Denver and the rest of the metro area is a mere formality. They’re finding housing and moving there, or they’re switching jobs and moving, without much worry about the actual city they live in.
But the more interesting thing is what it shows NOT to be happening. These data tell us that we don’t have a lot of mobility between Denver and the parts of the state outside the metro area. We don’t have a lot of country mice becoming city mice and vice versa.
If we look at the net inflow and outflow, we see that the largest outflows from Denver, by far, are to Jefferson County, while Adams and Arapahoe are roughly equal. But the bottom line is that these are indeed outflows – Denver is feeding population to the metro suburbs. In fact, the only three counties that feed Denver more than 50 net new residents each year are Boulder, Larimer, and El Paso. One might propose a theory that perhaps new college graduates are relocating to Denver, though there could be other theories as well.
And finally, just for fun, let’s look at where those out-of-state people come from, and where Denver residents go when they move out of state. This can have a lot of impact on our culture.
First, let’s look at those who move to Denver from out of state. We see that the legends of Californians and Texans coming to our state are true, as those are the two states that produce the most new Denver residents. Other notable states are the large-population states of New York, Florida, and Illinois.
However, Texas and California residents may notice a lot of Colorado arrivals as well, since those two states are the most common landing spots for Denver residents who leave the Centennial State. In fact, the Illinois and Florida migration routes are two-way streets as well. New York does not get 1,000 or more Denver outmigrants, though, and in a nod to our love of the west, Arizona rounds out the top five destinations of Denver residents.
Where it really gets interesting, though, is when we compare inflows and outflows and look at the net flows. We see that in the map below. Notice a pattern?
We see that Denver tends to be a net importer of people from all parts east, particularly Illinois, and from California. But we lose people on net to other western states (and a smidge to some small New England states – I guess people can’t give up the mountains).
So what did we learn from this exercise? Quite a bit, it seems.
First, we can see that Denver is part of a cycle of migration and movement. We disproportionately import Californians as well as Midwesterners, Southerners, and people from the Northeast. We can presume that there are probably different reasons for this: Californians may be cashing in on home equity or fleeing high prices, while those from parts east may be coming in pursuit of jobs or higher wages. While migration trends often tend to have cultural impacts, the interesting thing about Colorado is that the California culture may to some extent offset the cultural impacts coming from the east in many respects, including income dynamics, political beliefs, and other factors.
Inside the state, Denver disproportionately attracts people from other large Colorado cities, particularly the college towns, which may be a job and wage force at work. There’s not a lot of movement between Denver and locations outside the Front Range. Inside the metro area, there’s a lot of circulation in and out of Denver, which shows that Denver offers different attributes to residents than the metropolitan suburbs do. Conventional wisdom is that Denver may offer more convenience to jobs and a robust rental market, while the suburban areas offer more affordable home ownership. The net force, though, pushes more people out to the suburbs than it pulls people into the city.
And finally, Denverites who leave Colorado seem to love the west. While they will move anywhere, they’re disproportionately likely to leave Colorado for other western and northwestern states, and also for the less developed New England states.