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Income influenced where Americans moved in 2020

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A woman works on a laptop from her cabin in the woods. For high earners who are able to work remotely, the desire for a different lifestyle may prompt a relocation.

For high earners who are able to work remotely, the desire for a different lifestyle may prompt a relocation. Jovan Geber via Getty Images

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Researchers at Vanderbilt University recently studied patterns of people moving from place to place during the pandemic. They found a significant percentage of people moved from larger cities to smaller cities, but the reasons for relocating were different depending on their earnings.

When the pandemic hit last year, Mack McKelvey was renting a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. She runs a marketing firm, and before COVID-19, it made sense for her to be in New York. But working remotely, her location didn’t matter. So in September, she looked for a place in Vermont.

“It was a no-brainer. We drove up, looked at the house, said yes, signed the lease, went back to New York and started packing,” McKelvey said.

For that house on a lake, she now pays about half what she paid for the apartment in Manhattan. 

Peter Haslag, a researcher at Vanderbilt who has been studying moving patterns amid the pandemic, said higher-income folks like McKelvey tended to move for a lifestyle change, and because they could. “If you decouple work from location decisions, then people are able to kind of optimize in a different way.”

Haslag said lower-income households relocated last year for many of the same reasons they did before, including job loss and the cost of living. People in the lower-income brackets are also less likely to be able to work remotely than those who make more money.

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