Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Perceptions of Rust

Janko takes issue with the coverage of a recent Forbes list of dying American cities. I share Janko's frustration, though I'm not all that worried about the national or global branding of Rust Belt cities. I'm more concerned with how the people of Youngstown or Cleveland perceive their hometowns, which is why I obsess the weekly flow of brain drain hysteria in various outlets of journalism. Real policy will stem from these reports and the result is usually a colossal waste of scarce regional resources.

That brings me to a recent exchange with Brian Kelsey, the blogger behind Civic Analytics. Brian agreed to crunch some IRS data detailing the migration ledger of Ohio. His preliminary results are posted here:

To get at Jim's points about potential differences in incomes, per capita income for people moving to Ohio from other states in 2006-07 was $25,553, compared to $28,502 for people leaving Ohio. Using observations from all 88 counties, the difference in income was statistically significant at the .05 level. I could not find a statistically significant difference in incomes when including both in-state and out-of-state movers. This doesn't nearly address Jim's points fully, but it's a start.

What started me on the crusade to clarify the issue of brain drain is the disparity between the perception that everyone was leaving Pittsburgh and the fact that the rates of out-migration were and are relatively low. Everywhere I looked, I saw the same misinformation: The exodus of the early 1980s still held sway in how people understand the problems of today. That college graduates leave any and every region shouldn't be news at this stage of tracking the migration of talent.

Brian's first crack at the data indicates, in my estimation, that there well may be a surprising lack of out-migration from Rust Belt states such as Ohio. However, this story won't sell newspapers or books about where creative types prefer to live. Furthermore, politicians are feasting on brain drain anxiety with one boondoggle after another. Businesses can also make hay with their own solution to the "crisis": Lower taxes. The shame is that the same solutions are being recycled for a concern that has long since evaporated.

Your move, Ohio.


Janko said...

good post.

my frustration (besides the fact I was writing work-related stuff until 3am), you are right, had more to do with the local coverage than the actual content.

I hope with a modest amount of deprecating humor in the post, I was able to show how the local media gets all in a tizzy about this stuff. Usually I keep my mouth shut when the 3 or 4 of these coll out every year, but in this case, I want to prevent sloppy newspaper writers from making similar mistakes in the future.

Anonymous said...

Jim, thanks for the comments. I like your take on perception versus reality, and what it means for the investment of limited public resources. In your opinion, which regions, Rust Belt or elsewhere, have received the most coverage on the "crisis" of outmigration? You mentioned Pittsburgh, of course. What are some others?

Jim Russell said...


Thanks again for doing the data analysis.

The Rust Belt gets the most national attention as a region suffering from out-migration. I've seen a few articles (such as in the NYT) that do a better job of revealing the demographic forces resulting in population decline. The only other region that gets any notice is New England.

The bulk of crisis coverage is at the state or city level. Even states growing in population display acute brain drain anxiety (e.g. Colorado, Georgia, and Arizona). In your backyard, an El Paso paper recently ran a series on that city's brain drain problem. There even used to be an active blog about the El Paso Diaspora.

Here are my top 5 brain drain obsessed states: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Vermont. My metric is the number of state policies and amount of money thrown at the "problem."

As a parting shot, read the following article about Tucson: