MISSOULA, Mont. - When people think of economic health, they usually think of unemployment, wages or the housing market.
Economist Bryce Ward says positive net migration -- more people moving to a place than away from it -- can be the best indicator for how an economy is doing.
"Population growth is a better indicator of economic health than income," said Ward, who works for the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. "In the U.S., people can live whereever they want. So if people are choosing to live in your area, you're doing something well."
Ward says new U.S. Census data shows most of Montana to be in relatively good economic health.
From 2010 to 2013, Montana has seen a 1.54 percent change in population via net migration. Missoula has grown by 1.05 percent, Billings has grown by 2.68 percent, and Bozeman has grown by 3.61 percent.
For context, the census data shows the population growth via net migration for the average American metro area with a population between 100,000 and 120,000 people is -0.04 percent.
Ward says there are three main drivers for net migration -- income, cost of living and quality of life.
"People are flooding North Dakota or eastern Montana because there's a lot of money and good jobs available compared to what's in other places," said Ward. "The second reason people move to other places is cost of living. That's the Texas story. People move to Texas because it's cheap. And the last major reason is quality of life. That's typically climate and consumer amenities, and restaurants, and all that kind of stuff. And in Montana's case, it's more often than not the quality of life driver."