18 May 1998

Go East Young Man

For the first time since New York journalist Horace Greeley uttered his famous exhortation "Go west, young man", the tide of America's mobile citizenry is turning. According to David Plane, professor of geography and regional development at the University of Arizona, between 1992 and 1995 "the net direction of US interstate population movement was to the east rather than to the west - reversing a long-standing historical trend of westward migration drift."

Plane's findings came as something of a surprise. In fact, he stumbled across them by accident while seeking out a standard method for summarizing American population movements. The usual summary measure of "drift" is the centre of population, last pegged to a farm just west of St Louis. (In Greeley's day it was a point near the Ohio River between West Virginia and Ohio.) Analyzing data collected from the Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service, he calculated that the centre had shifted eastwards, despite the explosive growth over the past three decades of western meccas such as Denver, Tucson, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Suggested reasons for the shift include the economic problems affecting California in the early 1990s, the changing points of foreign immigration from the east to west coast, as well as employment trends and population ageing around the country.

If you were to add up the total distance Americans moved during the period 1994-1995, the sum length of all those relocations would amount to more than six billion miles. In contrast, Pluto at its furthest orbit is only 4.2 billion miles from the sun.