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Southern Cultures 13.1 (2007) 73-79

Seniors and the Sunbelt
John Shelton Reed

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Figure 1
With buttes and mesas like these at Canyon del Muerto, Arizona is one of only two states outside the South that makes the top ten destinations for older Americans. Photograph courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.
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Figure 2
Nevada has a long history of luring people for all manner of reasons and still manages a place in the South-dominated top ten list of destinations for older Americans. Photograph courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

The southern comedian Brother Dave Gardner once cracked that "the only reason people live in the North is because they have jobs there." He added, "You never heard of nobody retiring to the North, have you?"

That was funnier in the early 1960s, before the South began to attract people who only live in it because they have jobs there. And maybe it shouldn't have been so funny even then: One way to hear it is as a comment on the absence of jobs in the South at the time. But the second half of Brother Dave's observation still has the ring of truth about it: You don't think of retirees as flocking to the Northeast and the Midwest. And, as a matter of fact, they don't.

Sociologist Charles F. Longino Jr. recently ranked the fifty states and the District of Columbia by the net number of migrants—in-migrants minus out-migrants—sixty years old and older between 1995 and 2000. (See the numbers in the right-hand column in the table below.) Longino's data reveal that eight of the top ten destinations for older Americans were in the South: Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas, in that order. The only nonsouthern states in the top ten were Arizona (number two) and Nevada (number four).1 In general, Longino's analysis shows that most of the South and parts of the West were net gainers of senior citizens; in the South only Louisiana and Kentucky showed net losses. [End Page 74]

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Figure 3
Tennessee, with its numerous draws, including the annual Iroquois Memorial Steeplechase (here) each May in Nashville, is one of eight southern states in the top ten list of destinations for older Americans. Photograph courtesy of Tennessee Tourist Development.

The difference in the absolute numbers of in- and out-migrants is obviously important for purposes of planning and analysis, but even more revealing in some ways is the number of in-migrants per out-migrant, in other words, the ratio of in-migrants to out-migrants, which can be seen as a measure of attractiveness independent of the size of a state's population. (Given a large state and a small one with the same ratio, the large state will have greater net migration, other things equal.) A state that attracts two retirees for every one it loses obviously has something to offer that a state that is only breaking even does not.

As the table shows, some states are more—and others less—attractive than the net migration figures indicate. Delaware, for example, was only fourteenth among the fifty states and the District of Columbia in net in-migration, but the three retirees it attracted for every two it lost moves it up to number seven in attractiveness—similar to Georgia and Tennessee. Alaska, on the other hand, was thirty-fifth in net migration, but it lost nearly two golden-agers for every one who moved there, a ratio that moves it down even further, to forty-seventh. (It may, in fact, be true for Alaska that the only reason many people live there is because they have jobs there.) By contrast, when ranked by net migration California was fiftieth, its net out-migration second only to New York's, but it managed to attract two oldsters for every three who left, which...


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