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The skyline of Midtown in Atlanta. (Photo: Mike/Wikimedia Commons)

Atlanta Is Dying: Young, Smart People Are Fleeing Georgia’s Capital City

• February 12, 2014 • 1:15 PM

The skyline of Midtown in Atlanta. (Photo: Mike/Wikimedia Commons)

Why can’t The ATL keep more than 50 percent of Georgia Tech’s graduates? It’s about aspiration, not place-failure.

As I write this post, Atlanta prepares for ice storm Armageddon. Fresh in Georgian minds is the epic catastrophe resulting from a few inches of snow merely two weeks ago. Mayor Reed gives the pep talk:

Before Snowjam turned into a verbal snowball fight between Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and some news outlets, Reed planned to spend most of his time Jan. 31 with the Atlanta Press Club talking about his initiatives for 2014.

Reed did address some goals for the year, such as keeping more young, smart people in the city. One statistic the mayor cited about the percentage of Georgia Tech students who stay after graduation piqued our curiosity.

“Right now, we only keep 50 percent of Georgia Tech’s graduates,” Reed said.

Nothing like diverting attention from one public relations disaster to another. Save that the people will rally behind Reed. Atlanta must retain local graduates. Great, but perhaps everyone is leaving because of apparent ineptness such as “Snowjam.” The mayor is admitting that his city stinks.

Why else would anyone leave? Atlanta is dying.

Recently, I have gained a better appreciation of the “geography” of brain drain. People only leave if a place fails. Fix the place and no one will move out, ever. Pretty much everyone thinks this way. I’m not sure why. It’s not true. Social science has proven it:

In his 2007 paper, “Keeping Them in Their Place: The Ambivalent Relationship Between Development and Migration in Africa,” the International Migration Institute’s Oliver Bakewell wrote that “from its earliest roots, development practice has commonly seen a reduction in migration as either an (implicit or explicit) aim of intervention or an indicator of a programme’s success.” Migration, then, is considered inversely proportional to success in African development.

But a fascinating new paper from the World Bank turns this logic on its head. “Does Migration Foster Exports?­” has a title with an unnecessary question mark. According to the authors, migration does indeed foster exports in Africa, and in numbers large enough that they should catch the attention of development and policy leaders worldwide. Their findings “suggest that one additional migrant creates about 2,100 dollars a year in additional exports for his country of origin.”

Using that estimation, a half-million more African migrants dispersing throughout the world—a number equivalent to less than 1/100th of a percent of the world’s population—would create more than a billion dollars in additional exports for Africa, per year. The $2,100 is in addition to the dramatically increased salaries African migrants can expect from moving to countries with stronger economies. It’s also in addition to the remittances they send home. And it takes into account that half of all African migrants don’t even leave the continent. With the number of African migrants in the world having doubled since 1980 to more than 30 million, and given Africa’s expected population boom in the coming decades, the impact Africans have from a distance on their home-country economies is only set to grow.

Much of the conventional wisdom about migration comes from a xenophobic perspective. Outsiders are bad. We’ll fix your hometown so you won’t bother us (and steal our women).

People relocate for reasons of aspiration, not place-failure. If place-failure were the cause of outmigration, then we could hold up a town that did it right. You won’t find that town on any map. It doesn’t exist. Ambition is ubiquitous. The grass is always greener for the best and brightest.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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