An exodus from Massachusetts that has stretched across two decades is showing signs of ending.
U.S. Census numbers released this week indicate that for the first time since at least 1991, the number of people moving to Massachusetts from other states in 2009 was more than the number who left to live elsewhere in the U.S.
"The fact that it's a reversal of a trend is interesting to me, and I think it bodes well for the future of Massachusetts," said Susan Strate, director of the population estimates program at the UMass Donahue Institute in Amherst.
Massachusetts gained 3,614 residents in "domestic migration" in 2009, according to Census Bureau estimates.
It's a tiny gain, but the state hasn't had a positive number for any year including 1991, the earliest year the figure could be found in Census Bureau archives.
Gov. Deval Patrick touted the figures as another sign the state was on the road to recovery.
"This confirms that Massachusetts is becoming a more competitive and attractive place to live, work and do business," Patrick said Friday in a statement.
The state had a net loss of 55,077 residents in 2005. By 2008, the loss was a more modest 9,724.
Holly St. Clair, data manager at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, cautioned against reading too much into a relatively small gain in a single year. She noted such estimates are often later adjusted up or down by the Census Bureau, making it too soon to know if it was truly a sign of reverse.
St. Clair added that the state remains at "a major risk" of losing a congressional seat after the 2010 Census because of relatively flat population growth.
This week, the Census Bureau estimated the Massachusetts 2009 population at 6,593,587, about a 4 percent increase in overall population since 2000 (counting factors such as births and international immigration, as well as domestic migration). By contrast, states such as Georgia and Arizona grew during that time by about 20 and 29 percent, respectively.
Slow growth and steady numbers of people leaving are seen as signs of stagnancy, but if Massachusetts begins to gain residents from other states after years of watching people bolt, people will begin to feel more secure about the local economy, Strate said.
"We like to see growth, we like to see economic activity," she said.
Strate said the recession has given people fewer reasons to leave Massachusetts. Since the housing bubble burst, the state's once astronomically high housing prices have moved more in line with the rest of the country. In addition, the state's unemployment rate (8.8 percent in November) has consistently been lower than the national average.
"If you were looking for a better economic opportunity, where would you go?" Strate said. "And the answer is, there really isn't any place substantially better."
St. Clair said Massachusetts has historically tended to be less affected by recessions because of its key industries, including health care and education. For instance, when people are under stress economically, they need more medical or mental health care. They also tend to go back to school to get more education during recessions, she said.
Kofi Jones, spokeswoman for Housing and Economic Development Secretary Greg Bialecki, said the state has top academic, research and medical facilities, so it would make sense if more people are choosing to stay or move here, as the Census estimate indicates.
"It's a good sign, and it speaks to all of the competitive and attractive characteristics of the state," Jones said.
This program aired on December 25, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.