Aloha ‘Oe: Population Migration Between Hawaii and the U.S. Mainland


By James Mak and Justin Tyndall

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that, between July 1, 2018 and July 1, 2019, Hawaii’s population decreased by 4,721. Hawaii was one of ten states to lose population. Hawaii has been losing population for three consecutive years beginning in 2017. Persistent decline in the state’s population may be an indication of an ailing state facing major economic and social problems. Population losses can directly affect political representation and can also dampen the state’s economy. [1]

A change in a state’s population can be attributed to changes in three population components: natural increase (i.e. births minus deaths), net immigration (from foreign countries), and net domestic migration. Between 2018 and 2019, Hawaii experienced a natural increase of 4,130 inhabitants; international migration added another 5,014; however, 13,817 more Hawaii residents moved to the U.S. mainland than mainland residents moved to Hawaii. (The numbers don’t add up exactly due to a residual that cannot be attributed to any specific demographic category.) [2] Net migration (to other states) swamped natural population increase and international net in-migration to produce a population loss in Hawaii. Twenty-one other states and the District of Columbia also saw more of their residents leave than new residents move in from other states. Among them, Hawaii had the highest rate of net out-migration per 1000 inhabits in 2019, followed by New York and Illinois. [3]

Hawaii residents have long been fascinated by how many people move to the U.S. mainland each year. Until the Census Bureau began to publish annual estimates of state-to-state population migration no one knew for sure. But it was not a secret among locals that large, albeit unknown, numbers of the state’s population were leaving the islands since the mid-1970s for the affordability and glitz of Las Vegas, Nevada, affectionately known as Hawaii’s 9th Island. [4] To put a number on how many people were leaving the state, University of Hawaii-Manoa economist Walter Miklius—who himself would later retire to the Mainland—examined the Health Department’s health surveillance survey for 1990 that included a question on how likely—“some possibility”, “a good chance”, or “almost certain”—the respondent will be living some place other than Hawaii one year hence. There was no follow-up survey to confirm that the respondent actually moved. Using heroic assumptions on the probability of actually moving, Miklius came up with an estimate of 21,740 Hawaii residents who left Hawaii in 1990, or about 2% of the entire Hawaii population. [5] The Health Department survey didn’t ask potential movers where they might be moving to. Miklius did not analyze in-migration to Hawaii.

We now have better data on state-to-state migration flows derived from the annual American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS is the largest household survey in the U.S; like the decennial census long form it is also mandatory. [6] Among a long list of questions, the survey asks respondents where they actually lived a year ago. The Census Bureau uses the ACS data to estimate population migration between states and localities. At this writing, state-to-state migration data separately for in-migration and out-migration are available through 2018. [7] Figure 1 displays state-to-state population flows between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland, 2006 to 2018. (The data are displayed in the Appendix, Table A-1.)

Figure 1

In 2018, 67,293 Hawaii residents moved to the Mainland, or equivalent to more than 4.5% of the state’s total population; they were partially replaced by 54,074 mainlanders who moved to Hawaii for a net out-migration from Hawaii of 13,219.

People move for personal/family and economic/employment reasons. [8] Those who choose to move consider themselves better off by moving. For the economy, migration is one way the labor market adjusts to business cycles and external shocks. For example, absent migration, the labor market’s response to a sharp economic recession is a (steeper than otherwise) rise in unemployment and probably a fall in labor force participation. Migration absorbs some of the shock, which is good for those who stayed. In the long run, sustained net out-migration reduces the state’s human capital and retards economic growth.

For Hawaii, Figure 1 indicates that through good times and bad (including the Great Recession which began in 2007), more Hawaii residents moved to the Mainland since 2006 than mainlanders moved to Hawaii each year, except in 2010. By contrast, the state’s population increased every year until 2017. Natural population increase and (international) immigration more than off-set negative net resident out-migration to the Mainland. Hawaii’s population declined since 2016 in part due to increases in out-migration but also because of decreases in the number of in-migrants from the Mainland. The Mainland has become a more attractive place to live for many Hawaii residents while Hawaii has become less attractive for potential Mainland in-migrants. 

Which states did Hawaii’s out-migrants move to in 2018? And which states did Hawaii’s in-migrants come from? The answers can be found in the following maps. (See Appendix Table A-2 for the data.)

New Residents of Hawai'i by Origin, 2018
Departing Residents of Hawai'i by Destination, 2018
Annual net migration to Hawai'i 2018

The number one destination of Hawaii residents moving to the U.S. mainland in 2018 was California (12,848) followed by Texas (7,986), Nevada (4,959), Washington (3,416) and North Carolina (3,402) round out the Top Five destinations. Together, they accounted for 42% of all Hawaii emigrants to the Mainland.

Among new comers to Hawaii, the number one source was also California (10,456), followed by Washington (4,351), Texas (4,180), Virginia (3,987) and Colorado (3,164). These five states accounted for 48% of total Mainland in-migrants to Hawaii in 2018. Although there is geographic dispersion, migration to and from Hawaii is concentrated among a relatively few states.

The third map shows net-migration by state. Even though California is the number one destination of Hawaii residents moving to the Mainland and the number one source of new Hawaii residents from the Mainland, it is not the lead state when it comes to net migration. That distinction belongs to Nevada.

COVID-19 and efforts to contain it no doubt will drastically stem the flow of migrants between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland, at least temporarily. We won’t know how drastically until the Census Bureau releases state-to-state migration data during the pandemic period. During and shortly after the Great Recession fewer people moved to and (especially) out of Hawaii (see Figure 1). Hawaii’s travel-dependent economy took a huge hit even before the 14-day travel quarantines, business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders. One might expect the resultant spike in unemployment would spur a surge in out-migration to the Mainland. But that might not happen immediately due to the greatly increased difficulty of navigating a trans-Pacific move. There is also the public’s fear of getting infected on the Mainland where the pandemic is worse in many parts of the country than in Hawaii, especially in states like California and Texas, destinations that are popular among Hawaii residents. The impact of reduced out-migration falls on the labor market with likely more workers leaving the labor force and higher unemployment rates (among those who remain in the labor force) than would be otherwise. 

In the early 1970s, many in Hawaii were concerned that too many people were moving to Hawaii and reducing the quality of life in the islands. In recent years locals are leaving the islands in increasing numbers, citing the high cost of living in Hawaii—especially housing costs—and the lack of job opportunities suited to their skills and interests. There is still much to be learned about why so many kama’aina move to the Mainland, and vice versa, and the economic, social, political and demographic implications of this two-way migration.

Table A-1
Domestic Migration Into and Out of Hawaii: 2006-2019

(3) = (1) – (2)
Sources:; State of Hawaii Data Book, various years from 2011 to 2018

Table A-2
Hawaii Migrants from and to U.S. States and D.C.: 2018

In-migration From
Out-migration To
(3) = (1) – (2)
Net Migration
District of Columbia768124+644
New Hampshire0151-151
New Jersey24305-281
New Mexico122313-191
New York1,4161,181+235
North Carolina8433,402-2,559
North Dakota0204-204
Rhode Island000
South Carolina1,072857+215
South Dakota500+50
West Virginia042-42
Note: Data are based on a sample and subject to sampling variability.

[1] Robert Gebeloff, “Why Your State Is Growing or Stalling or Shrinking,” The New York Times, January 9, 2020 at

[2] U.S. Census Bureau at


[4] Jessica Terrell, Ku’u Kauanoe and Claire Caulfield, “How Las Vegas Became Hawaii’s 9th Island,” Honolulu Civil Beat, June 14, 2020 at

[5] Walter Miklius, “If Hawaii is paradise, why do so many people leave?” Randy W. Roth (editor), The Price of Paradise, Lucky We Live Hawaii? Mutual Publishing, 1992, Chapter 36.

[6] U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, Information Guide, October 2017at




13 thoughts on “Aloha ‘Oe: Population Migration Between Hawaii and the U.S. Mainland”

  1. Is there any data on how many people leave Hawaii, then return, and how many move to Hawaii, then leave?

    Given our state reluctance to simply allow people to build housing quickly and cheaply, I don’t see any meaningful reduction coming in the cost of housing. The Kam Swap Meet site on Oahu comes to mind, but the issue is state wide. If developers are allowed to make a profit only on expensive housing, we aren’t going to see any meaningful reduction in the cost of entry level housing.

  2. Sorry this might be a repost…

    Mahalos for this discussion.

    I always thought the emigration of HI residents was a loss of human capital also but last year’s JEC report showing HI experiencing “brain gain” has made me less confident of that:

    Interestingly, Steve Petranik and Kam Napier of HI Business and PBN, respectively, have said that they see more experienced/educated labor coming in than going out also. This is only anecdotal and I have quibbles with the JEC methodology but would love to hear your thoughts on this nuance of our declining population. It’s a concern one way or another, but I never see this aspect getting examined.

    1. Hi Laron:

      Thanks for sharing the JEC report with us. It adds to the literature on state-to-state migration in the U.S. JEC has excellent economists who do quality research (one of our former colleagues went to work there). For the benefit of UHERO readers, let me begin by briefly summarizing the JEC report.

      The JEC report is a research report; ours is a brief blog. It also has a different purpose than our blog which focuses on year-to-year population (one year old or older) migration between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland using Census Bureau migration estimates. The JEC report focuses on a separate issue of “brain drain” (or “brain gain”)—i.e. interstate migration of highly educated people, comprised of men and women between the ages of 31 and 40 who are at the top one-third of the national education distribution. (It is not quite the same as gain or loss in human capital due to overall population migration.) A highly educated “leaver” is someone currently in the top third of the national education distribution who resides in a state other than his/her state of birth. The report examines the period from 1940 to 2017. In a nut-shell the report concludes that Hawaii, among a few other states including Texas, Arizona, Illinois and Colorado, are “the best at retaining and attracting highly-educated adults.” That conclusion, no doubt, might surprise a lot of people in Hawaii.

      For 2017, the JEC report finds that for Hawaii, leavers (when they became adults) were more highly educated than stayers. However, Hawaii’s leavers were less highly educated than those who moved to Hawaii. In other words, Hawaii was a (net) beneficiary of brain gain rather than a victim of brain drain.

      It bothers me that, in the report, Hawaii leavers are defined as those who may have left decades ago. If our reading of the JEC methodology is correct, we might have the following.

      Imagine a two-year old Hawaii child who moves to California with his parents; he grows up and subsequently graduates with a bachelor’s degree from a university in California; he then spends a couple of years getting a master’s degree in Boston, Massachusetts; and upon graduation he finds a job in New York City and relocates there. In the year that he moves to New York City, the Census Bureau’s state-of-state migration flow report will describe him as a person who has moved from Massachusetts to New York State. By contrast, the JEC report will report a highly educated person lost by Hawaii to New York State. JEC researchers recognize this shortcoming but dismisses it as a meaningful concern to answer the question of how costly is brain drain.

      The report’s general description of the geographic pattern of migration in the U.S. is useful —i.e. it shows that highly-educated adults have been moving for some time to dynamic, metropolitan (coastal) states and leaving more rural and post-industrial states. There are economic, political, social and cultural consequences for states and for the nation as a whole stemming from this migration. The report warns that states that lose their skilled people, not replaced by equally skilled out-of-staters, may see their economic fortunes decline. And even if a state’s population loss is made up by highly educated in-migrants, those states are still “losing a vital source of social capital.” That is, our children may leave Hawaii to go away to college and never return to work and live; even if these children are replaced by equally educated new residents from out of state there is still a loss to the community. The question that remains is: What should and can we do about it? As we pointed out in our blog, migration is not all bad. It is certainly good for the individual who decides to move. For both the individual and the state, it would be bad if our young people cannot move to states that provide more economic opportunities than our own state. The best scenario is one where we manage to develop a vibrant and diversified economy that will entice more of our able young people to remain in Hawaii.


  3. Do these figures include military and their dependents? Interesting that Arizona and Idaho have over 1,000 net increase, with Washington, Kansas, Missouri, and D.C. having sizable net increases also.

    1. Resident population estimates include the military and military dependents. In 2018 (July 1), Hawaii’s resident population numbered 1,420,491 of which 45,286 were military. Thus, the civilian population (which includes 60,383 military dependents) numbered 1,375,205. The military and military dependent populations have been pretty stable in recent years. Between 2012 and 2018, the military population have numbered around 45,000 while the dependent population has ranged between 60,000 to 65,000.

  4. I want to repeat Robin’s question.

    I also wonder about the de facto population. For example, I believe Hawaii had something like 10 million tourists in 2019. With space at a premium (especially on Oahu), more housing being dedicated to short term rentals will reduce the amount available for long term rentals to residents.

    In 2018 and 2019, I think Hawaii was a close competitor (if not national champion) in terms of having the lowest unemployment rate (the rate was probably below that required for proper functioning of the labor market). This doesn’t seem to indicate an ‘ailing’ economy.

  5. Hi Don:

    Hawaii’s de facto population in 2018 (July 1) was 1,595,186; 240,341 were tourists present (See State of Hawaii 2018 Data Book, Table 1.04).
    For a discussion of the unemployment situation in Hawaii in 2018 and 2019 and Hawaii’s economy, please see the UHERO blog: Unemployment and Underemployment in Hawaii: A Troubling Picture.

    Thanks for your interest.


  6. Mahalos for the detailed reply. I come to the same reading of the JEC’s methodology, which is actually one of the quibbles I have with the report but I don’t know the migration subject well enough to say it’s a fatal flaw. Intuitively I suppose it’s acceptable given the broad application and anecdotal evidence of myself and others, but given HI’s recent population loss I can see this becoming more of a distortion for our state’s data.

    1. This just came out. It would be good to go back a few years.

      Educational Attainment of In-migrants and Out-migrants between Hawaii and Other U.S. States and D.C.: 2018

      In-migrants % Out-migrants %
      Total Number (25 year old or older): 32,367 100.0% 34,977 100.0%

      # Bachelor Degree 7,865 24.3 9,514 27.2
      # Post Graduate and Profession Degree 6,279 19.4 5,911 16.9
      Total Bachelor + Post Graduate 14,144 43.7% 15,425 44.1%

      Source: State of Hawaii 2019 Data Book at

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