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Stony Brook University West Campus. (Photo: GK tramrunner229/Wikimedia Commons)

Long Island Is Dying, Again

• February 27, 2014 • 10:48 AM

Stony Brook University West Campus. (Photo: GK tramrunner229/Wikimedia Commons)

Population change obscures more than it illuminates.

I’ve been down this road before. To be clear, I don’t think Long Island is dying. I’m satirizing the meme that Rust Belt cities are dying. The infamous Forbes magazine listicle from 2008:

The turmoil of the mortgage market granted a temporary reprieve from hearing about the woes of America’s Rust Belt. That doesn’t mean things are better. Despite a decade of national prosperity, the former manufacturing backbone of the U.S. is in rougher shape than ever, still searching for some way to replace its long-stilled smokestacks.

Where’s it worst? Ohio, according to our analysis, which racked up four of the 10 cities on our list: Youngstown, Canton, Dayton and Cleveland. The runner-up is Michigan, with two cities–Detroit and Flint–making the ranking.

These, and four other metropolitan statistical areas, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, face fleeing populations, painful waves of unemployment and barely growing economies. By our measure, they’ve struggled the worst of any areas in the nation in the 21st century. And they face even bleaker futures.

Emphasis added. First up for inspection is Canton, Ohio. “Fleeing populations” translates as -7,807 net migration since 2000 and +212 population change. Despite more people leaving than arriving, Canton grew. Conversely, Scranton, Pennsylvania, gained 2,431 migrants but lost 11,197 in population. Both places are “dying” because, in part, they “face fleeing populations.”

Newsweek was jealous and made its own list of dying cities in 2011. Pittsburgh rates:

Like several of the other cities on this list, Pittsburgh’s decline was not a product of the recent recession. Rather it began several decades ago as the U.S. steel industry started to decline. The city continued to lose residents throughout much of the 2000s, and perhaps more importantly, the number of young people living in this city continued to decline, signaling that Pittsburgh may still have a tough decade ahead.

Bravo, a brilliant demographic analysis. Population decline equals “dying.” Most people think that way. In fact, many equate less population with brain drain. That explains why regional economist Chris Briem had to correct locals about young adults fleeing Pittsburgh, in 2002:

A local obsession is the state of the population in Pittsburgh. In the year following the 2000 Census, recently released statistics from the Census Bureau show that the regional population has continued to decline. Local reaction follows a familiar pattern: Personal and public alarm bells go off. The air fills with cries of “What is wrong with our hometown?” and “What are we doing to change it?”

Before this process gets under way, however, realize one fact: The decline in the overall population does not mean that young people are leaving! In fact, it would appear that the exodus of the younger parts of the working-age population has abated almost entirely. …

… Even more shocking is that when compared with other large metropolitan areas, we actually are retaining a relatively larger percentage of our current population each year, more than Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit and even Miami to cite just a few examples. Try to convince the average Pittsburgher that we are doing better than other regions at keeping people here. He or she will surely think you have been living on the moon.

The relationship between regional population growth and economic well-being is not straightforward. A recent Brookings Institution paper, by Paul Gottlieb of Case Western University, looked at the relationship across the country. The results are surprising.

Pittsburgh ranked near the top in terms of what Gottlieb defines as regions which are “wealth builders.” Population here has been declining more than average. But we have, at the same time, retained more of our income level and quality of life. Other regions have greater levels of population growth, but also a more diluted level of personal income. Whatever the optimal level of growth really is, there are certainly places with growth rates that are as undesirable as they are unimaginable to us. Loudon County, Va., outside of Washington, D.C., grew over 13 percent last year alone. We must determine what will be the level of growth that is best for us.

Population change obscures more than it illuminates. Demographics aside, I think the problem is cultural. “What is wrong with our hometown?” Surely a cool downtown with walkable neighborhoods couldn’t possibly face fleeing populations. “What are we doing to change it?” Long Island’s Pittsburgh moment:

The report, entitled “Richest Communities on Long Island and in Westchester Experiencing Demographic Collapse of Young Adult Workforce,” was written by Alexander Roberts, the executive director of Community Housing Innovations, Inc., a housing advocacy group based in Westchester. The main argument Roberts makes is that “the greatest population losses of 25-34 year olds since 2000 are in the least diverse communities with the most expensive housing, which happen also to be those that have almost no affordable multifamily housing.” …

… The exodus of young professionals from Long Island’s wealthy enclaves makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is the report’s linkage to the creation of affordable housing to keep these young adults in those areas. The report highlights areas such as Kings Point, Westhampton, Lloyd Harbor as having alarming rates of brain drain exodus and claims that if more viable housing options existed, the young professionals would stay.

Richard Murdocco does a better job than I could of debunking the brain drain hysteria. I doubt a more nuanced look at the data will change anyone’s mind. Chris Briem is still pushing that rock uphill in Pittsburgh (big hills in that city). I read something last night that I think will advance the dialog:

Additionally, think about all of the factors that determine the decision to invest in education and the decision of where to use one’s education. The decisions are closely linked. The more education one acquires, generally the fewer positions there are in a particular geographic area that are suited for the practice of the acquired skill. In almost all towns of a certain size there are various positions suitable for someone with only a secondary-school education. For those with university training opportunities are much more limited, and the best positions are often found in cities or in distant regions. For people with postgraduate studies, the options in a particular place are even further reduced.

An extreme example that illustrates this point is the case of Arthur Lewis. Lewis was born in the small island nation of Saint Lucia, and won the Nobel memorial prize in economics for his work in England and the United States. A local professional career would not have made any sense for him. If he had known that he could not invest in education, he might not have left Saint Lucia, and likewise, if he had known that he could not leave Saint Lucia, he would have had fewer incentives to invest in a doctorate. This logic functions independently of international borders, which generally were fixed by historical accidents and not by a detailed consideration of the needs of skilled people. …

… The lower panel of Figure 3 shows the same statistics for the 31 Mexican states and the Federal District. In this panel “outside” is redefined as being born in a particular state and having a university education, but living in another state of Mexico, different from one’s state of birth. That is, the points represent the tendency of skilled people to move at the national level. These points are superimposed on the same points from the upper panel of the figure, which represent international movement. We do not observe a greater tendency for skilled workers to migrate between countries than between Mexican states. If anything, the tendency to migrate at the national level is greater than the average for countries that have the same size as Mexican states. The same pattern is observed around the world, including, for example, skilled migration between states and provinces of the United States, Brazil, the Philippines, and Kenya.

“The same pattern is observed around the world.” That applies to Long Island as much as it does to Mexico. I would expect wealthy areas to produce many highly skilled young adults who have a tendency to migrate and make the most of their education. The hubris required to imagine that a change in zoning regulations would alter that trend is profound. Michael Clemens continues his investigation into Mexican skilled migration:

The economic crisis has suppressed the demand for unskilled labor in the United States at the moment, and therefore it seems to have created a temporary situation of relative growth in the skill rate of Mexicans in the United States. But the above analysis suggests that the end of the crisis will bring with it a partial reversion of this trend. In any case, there is no strong evidence that any deliberate change in US immigration policy has been an important factor in the relative growth of skilled migration. Instead, this trend mainly results from broader forces outside the control of policy.

Emphasis added. I don’t look kindly on silver bullet claims for talent retention. International border control is about as powerful a policy lever in existence and is, in this case, impotent. More affordable housing will be a game-changer for Long Island brain drain? There are plenty of good reasons to promote cheaper rent. Stemming out-migration isn’t one of them.

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

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