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Idaho is increasingly a bullseye for Californian migrants

The state has gone from being an also-ran in the population sweepstakes to the country’s fastest-growing.

Ready for its closeup? With soaring housing costs, Boise is seeing a strong influx of in-migration from around the United States, particularly California. Pixabay Photo

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There’s a reason more and more Californians have been checking the airline schedules to Boise. Idaho has gone from being an also-ran in the population sweepstakes to the country’s fastest-growing state, and much of the new influx is coming from California. In raw numbers, yes, more Californians are moving to Texas, Nevada and Arizona. But Idaho, which ranked 20th in terms of destinations for outbound Californians a decade ago, now ranks 9th, surpassing not just rust-belt states like Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania but also more scenic destinations like Hawaii and Utah. Associated Press

The data on population movement comes from a variety of federal sources, including the Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service.

This trend comes hard to the heels of a decade in which, as the demographer William Frey reported, overall domestic migration in the United States was lower than any time since World War II. A decade ago, core urban areas were already losing population; the pandemic accelerated that. Brookings Institution

In California out-migration has exceeded in-migration for several years; Texas has been the preferred destination. But even before the pandemic upended lives and led to an ongoing population reshuffling, Idaho had risen on Californians’ horizons. 

Biggest gainers and losers in domestic migration

Analysis of Census data by the Brookings Institution shows the states that saw the largest net increase and decrease in population over the years 2018-21.

Click the headers to sort by year, either by greatest population gain or loss.

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Source: The Brookings Institution

For many, the attraction is price. But of the California counties with the highest home prices in 2021 – San Mateo, San Francisco, Marin and Santa Clara counties in the Bay Area – only one, Santa Clara, ranked among the top 10 California counties sending migrants to Idaho. In other areas, Idaho’s right-leaning political culture provides an antidote to California’s liberalism. 

Susan Lehner, a communications professional who moved to Boise last year from Lafayette, a hilly town east of San Francisco Bay, was once a devotee of San Francisco. But her effort to show her fourth-grade son sections of the area she loved turned sour when they passed used syringes, human feces and a half-naked man face down on the ground.

“The joy of bringing my son to my city was gone,”  she said. She and her husband liked what they had heard about Idaho. They were given a parting reminder of things that irked them about the Bay Area’s liberal culture. When her house went on sale, a realestate agent infuriated her by advising her to remove the American flag hanging over her entrance.

Lehner is just one migrant, but the IRS county-by-county migration data does show that California’s more conservative areas export more Idaho-bound migrants. IRS figures show Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties were more likely to have Idaho-bound migrants than San Francisco. 

Feeling the pull

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic upended lives and led to an ongoing population reshuffling, Idaho had risen on Californians’ horizons. From tax return data compiled by the IRS, here are the top counties in California, left, and in the rest of the country that saw residents move to counties in Idaho between 2018 and 2019.

Source: Internal Revenue Service via Brookings

Geoff McGhee/& the West

And residents departing from Placer County, an elongated jurisdiction strung along I-80 from Roseville to the Nevada state line, were more likely to head to Idaho than migrants from any other county. Most of its Idaho migrants head for the Boise area, but about 20 percent of Placer County’s 2018-2019 migrants went to Kootenai County, far to the north in the Idaho panhandle, a bucolic, mountainous area around Coeur d’Alene.

Not surprisingly, Los Angeles County, the country’s largest exporter of population, sent the most Californians – at least 1,700 – to Idaho in 2018 and 2019, according to IRS figures. The sources of the next highest number of Idaho-bound migrants were Orange County (at least 659 people) and San Diego County (at least 1,289.) Contra Costa County, Susan Lehner’s former home, sent at least 395. San Francisco trailed significantly, with more than 70 Idaho-bound migrants. St. Louis Fed

San Franciscans have their own preferred destination in the Mountain West: Montana. The San Francisco Chronicle reports on California Policy Labs data showing that moves from the city to Montana more than doubled over the past two years; it was a favorite destination for city dwellers whose numbers during the pandemic exodus marked a 50 percent increase from the two previous years. San Francisco Chronicle

How have Idaho and Montana reacted? Not well, according to local newspaper and radio stories over the past few years. Rising home prices are one reason. Norada, a real-estate investment site, reported recently that “the median sales price for homes in Ada County, Boise’s home, rose to $510,000, up 21.4 percent in a year – the largest annual gain since local realtors started tracking prices. Norada  

In Bozeman, home prices increased at least 18 percent.  

In Idaho, the arrival of some conservatives in flight from coastal liberalism has exacerbated divisions in the Republican party of this redder-than-red state. Politico reported recently that “Those who fear and those who cheer the effects of right flight agree on one point: The newcomers are pushing Idaho politics farther to the right.” Politico

In contrast to Susan Lehner’s real estate agent in the East Bay, who worried about an American flag, one Ada County agent briefly posted an ad saying “This property is for sale to Liberty / Constitutional Buyers ONLY.”

But political identities play no role in the motives of many mountain-bound migrants.  Carolyn Helmke spent years renting in Palo Alto, California before she and her husband decided to be homeowners in retirement. Priced out of the Bay Area, they headed for Ketchum, Idaho, near the resort area of Sun Valley. She said the culture there revolves around outdoor-loving activities like hunting and fishing and church-based work but people tend to have more liberal views. “It’s more of a mask-wearing place than elsewhere in Idaho,” she said. 


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Felicity Barringer

Lead writer

A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

Geoff McGhee

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Geoff McGhee specializes in interactive data visualization and multimedia storytelling. He is a veteran of the multimedia and infographics staffs at The New York Times, Le Monde and MORE »

Syler Peralta-Ramos

Editorial Assistant

Syler Peralta-Ramos is a member of the Stanford class of 2020. He has lived in Wilson, Wyoming his whole life and developed a keen interest in nature photography and conservation from a young age, inspired by the multitude of photographers that congregate in the Teton region as well as his parents who also share a love for photography.

‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.

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Anna McNulty
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Francisco L. Nodarse
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Danielle Nguyen
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