Think Tyler is changing because of a big spike in migration? Not quite.

There’s a theory I often hear in coffeeshop conversations about the future of Tyler. It goes like this: many of the changes happening in our city are being caused by a big increase in the number of new folks moving to Tyler. Those newcomers are often described as citified professionals, air-lifting in for jobs in our booming medical and higher-ed sectors. Or thirty-somethings who grew up here, left to sow their oats in pricey places like Austin and Denver, and are now back to buy homes, raise families, and start businesses.

This narrative is meant to explain Tyler’s rapidly shifting tastes and sudden boom of new, millennial-friendly options. Migration and change often go hand in hand, so it would make sense if Tyler saw a big spike in new residents in recent years.

There’s a problem with that theory: it hasn’t happened. As you can see in the chart below, it turns out that migration into the Tyler area has been flat over the past twenty years.

These numbers come from the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS keeps track of the addresses Americans put on their annual tax returns. If someone’s address changes from one year to the next, the IRS notes which county they left behind and where they ended up.

A Tyler Loop analysis of this data over the past two decades shows that for every 100 Smith County residents who stay put each year, about seven new residents move here from somewhere else. Of those seven newcomers, about five arrive from elsewhere in Texas, and the remaining two come from other states. These trends have barely budged in the last couple decades, other than a dip in 2015 that’s likely caused by a change in the way the IRS tracks migrants, not a change in the way people actually move.  

Of course, there are some caveats to the way the IRS tracks migration. For one thing, the data looks only at residents who file tax returns. That excludes many college students, very poor Americans, and undocumented immigrants—all significant populations in the Tyler area. (About fifty percent of undocumented immigrants do file tax returns; doing so can help with one’s citizenship application.)

Speaking of students, you might be wondering if this data can tell us whether the “brain drain”—what happens when college towns fail to retain their college grads—is currently a problem in Tyler. Some, including me, have speculated that newer amenities in Tyler—bars, coffeeshops, loosened liquor laws—might be making the city more attractive to recent college graduates and thus accelerating cultural change. Unfortunately, the IRS data can’t conclusively tell us whether more grads are sticking around; we won’t know for sure until the 2020 census is complete.

If most of Tyler’s new arrivals aren’t transplants from far-flung corners of America, who are they? Many of them are already East Texans. The top five sources of Smith County migrants are Henderson County (home to the city of Athens), Gregg County (Longview), Dallas County (Dallas), Cherokee County (Jacksonville), and Van Zandt County (Canton). Those five counties account for about a quarter of all migration into Smith County.

Overall, our IRS-tracked migration rate is middle-of-the-road compared to some other Texas counties. Smith County’s 2016 in-migration rate is slightly slower than nearby Gregg County (7.5 migrants per 100 locals) and much slower than booming Midland County (9.2). However, it’s also much faster than densely developed places like Dallas County (6.0) and Harris County (4.6), though those counties tend to receive a much higher proportion of migrants from out-of-state.

While it turns out that Tyler hasn’t seen a major change in these migration patterns over the past decade, that doesn’t mean that migration isn’t shaping Tyler. Small, steady numbers of newcomers are bound to significantly impact the future of a city over time. But let’s put to rest the notion that the big cultural and consumer shifts we’re seeing in our city can be explained by the number of outsiders coming in. The reality is more complicated and, I think, a lot more interesting.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mis-identified Nacogdoches as a city in Cherokee County. The correct city is Jacksonville.

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Chris Groskopf is co-founder of The Tyler Loop and a member of its board of directors. He is a pioneer in the field of data-driven storytelling, having worked at The Chicago Tribune, NPR, and Quartz. In addition to his work as a journalist, Chris runs a software engineering team for Enigma, a New York City-based data technology startup.
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