Young adult data indicates city economic health

By Jeremy Rhodes

For a city with a growing economy like ours, it’s important to know how well we are doing at retaining and attracting young workers. How many Wacoans leave our city for work when they reach adulthood, and how many stay? How many young adults move to Waco for work?

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released a new data tool that explores the migration patterns of American young adults. Using census, survey, and tax data for people born between 1984 and 1992 (age 30-38 in 2022), this tool records where individuals move between childhood (as measured by their location at age 16) and young adulthood (as measured by their location at age 26). According to the study, the average American moves 181 miles away from their hometown to build a life as an adult.

The average Waco resident moves 117 miles away. The average young adult in Waco has moved here from 146 miles away.

The table below shows the percentage of people who stayed in their home city (note: the geographies used in this analysis are not actually cities, they are areas called commuting zones) among cities that are similar to Waco, and the percentage of young adult residents who also grew up in that city.

The peer cities that retained the highest percentages of their young adults are all West Texas cities – Midland, Lubbock, and Amarillo. This is not surprising, given the remoteness of those cities. Young adults are more likely to leave their home cities when there are numerous options all within a relatively short distance. The lack of close options in West Texas causes a higher percentage of those who stay.

After the West Texas cities, Waco has the highest percentage, with 63% of Waco young adults remaining in the city. This is positive news for our city. Compared to our peer cities outside of the very remote West Texas cities, people raised in Waco are more likely to remain in Waco during adulthood. I find this high number especially impressive, considering Waco’s close proximity to Austin and DFW.

The second column shows the percentage of young adults who were raised in the same city. A lower number for this column would indicate a higher percentage of residents moving to Waco from another city. At 64%, Waco has one of the highest percentages. Most likely, this is not an encouraging number for our city, as it means that we are not doing as well at attracting young adults to move to our city as our peer cities.

The second table (below) shows where residents are moving from. 23% of Waco’s young adults moved to Waco from another city in Texas, compared to an average of 26% among the peer cities. 12% of Waco’s young adults moved to Waco from an area outside of Texas, compared to a peer city average of 18%.

Two other numbers from the table stand out to me.

  • First, Bryan/College Station has the highest percentage of young adults who move there from somewhere else in Texas (40%). This is what we would expect, given Texas A&M University’s status as one of the premiere public universities in the state.

  • Second, 45% of the young adults in Temple/Killeen come from areas outside of Texas, due to the presence of the Ft. Hood army base.

The tool also allows you to look at the numbers broken down by race and income level. Generally, people with more resources move longer distances away from home as an adult. For example, among Wacoans raised in the top income bracket, 48% of them remained in Waco as an adult. Among those in the bottom income bracket, 68% of them remained in Waco as an adult.

Here is a link to more information about this study on the geographic mobility of young Americans.

Jeremy Rhodes, Ph.D., is director of research & community impact with Prosper Waco.