People Are Fleeing North Dakota. Here’s Where They’re Plotting to Move to.

North Dakota, once a booming state for oil and gas production, is now facing a population decline as people are leaving for better opportunities elsewhere. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, North Dakota lost 4,901 residents between July 2019 and July 2020, a 0.6% drop that ranks as the third-highest percentage loss in the nation. The state also had the lowest net migration rate, meaning more people moved out than moved in, among all 50 states. What are the reasons behind this exodus, and where are these former North Dakotans heading to?

Economic Downturn

One of the main factors driving people away from North Dakota is the economic downturn caused by the collapse of the oil and gas industry. The state’s economy heavily relies on the extraction and processing of fossil fuels, which accounted for 40% of its gross domestic product in 2019.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the global oversupply of oil have led to a sharp decline in demand and prices, forcing many oil and gas companies to cut production, lay off workers, or file for bankruptcy. As a result, North Dakota’s unemployment rate rose from 2.3% in February 2020 to 8.7% in April 2020, the highest level since 1983. Although the unemployment rate has since improved to 4.4% in December 2020, it is still higher than the national average of 3.5%.

The loss of jobs and income has also affected other sectors of the state’s economy, such as retail, hospitality, construction, and education. Many small businesses have closed or reduced their operations, and some local governments have faced budget shortfalls and service cuts. The state’s tax revenue fell by 8.5% in the first half of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.

The economic hardship has made it difficult for many residents to afford the high cost of living in North Dakota, which is 10% above the national average. The state has the highest average rent for a one-bedroom apartment ($1,122) and the highest average electricity bill ($158) in the country.

Harsh Weather and Isolation

Another reason why people are leaving North Dakota is the harsh weather and isolation that characterize the state. North Dakota has one of the most extreme climates in the U.S., with long and cold winters, short and hot summers, and frequent blizzards, tornadoes, and floods.

The state’s average annual temperature is 40.4°F, the lowest among the contiguous states. The state also has the lowest average annual precipitation, with only 17.8 inches of rain and snow. The weather can pose challenges for transportation, agriculture, health, and recreation.

North Dakota is also one of the most sparsely populated and rural states in the U.S., with only 11 people per square mile and 36% of its population living in rural areas. The state has the lowest population density and the fourth-lowest population size among the 50 states. The state’s largest city, Fargo, has only 124,662 residents, while the capital, Bismarck, has only 73,529. The lack of urban amenities, cultural diversity, and social opportunities can make some people feel bored, lonely, or isolated.

Where Are They Moving to?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the top five states that received the most migrants from North Dakota in 2019 were Minnesota, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California. These states offer some advantages over North Dakota, such as warmer weather, larger and more diverse cities, more job opportunities, and lower cost of living.

For example, Minnesota, which shares a border with North Dakota, has a similar culture and history, but also has a more diversified economy, a higher median household income, and a lower poverty rate. Texas, which is also a major oil and gas producer, has a more resilient economy, a lower unemployment rate, and a lower tax burden. Arizona, Colorado, and California have more sunny days, more scenic landscapes, and more recreational activities .


North Dakota is facing a population decline as people are fleeing the state for better opportunities elsewhere. The main reasons behind this exodus are the economic downturn caused by the collapse of the oil and gas industry, the harsh weather and isolation that characterize the state, and the attraction of other states that offer more advantages. North Dakota may need to diversify its economy, invest in its infrastructure, and improve its quality of life to retain and attract more residents in the future.

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