Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Diaspora Christmas

The holiday season reminds many of us how difficult geographic mobility is on families and communities:

There's my sister who lives in Virginia and my brother and his family in Nevada. Then there is my other brother who lives in Ontario. I can't forget my aunts, uncles and cousins who live in the Boston area. And I have to connect with my cousin in Washington. Of course, I need to try and connect with the many friends that have moved away from New Brunswick over the years and are now living in Ontario, Alberta, New York and Virginia. I feel worse for my parents as I am the only one of their four children that has remained in New Brunswick.

Think of it as my own little Campbell diaspora or far-flung network of ex-New Brunswickers most of whom left New Brunswick for economic opportunity elsewhere. You can probably see why I am so passionate about fixing the province's structural economic problems. For me it is intensely personal.

If there was more economic opportunity in New Brunswick, would less people leave? Actually, the opposite is true:

Which brings me to this week's mystery: Why do people still live in Detroit, which has suffered so much for so long? Why not move to Chicago or New York? People originally moved to places like Treorchy because there was coal to be mined. Now that the mines have closed—and the Burberry factory too—why do they stay? ...

... Even when we look only at internal migration, the barriers are formidable. Wherever people seem particularly keen to own their own homes—as in the United Kingdom, Spain, and some U.S. states—employment suffers as a result. English economist Andrew Oswald has shown that across European countries, and across U.S. states, high levels of home ownership are correlated with high levels of unemployment. More conventional factors such as generous welfare benefits or high levels of unionization don't explain unemployment nearly as well as the tendency to own houses. Renting your home and staying flexible do wonders for your chances of always finding an interesting job to do.

Recent research in the Economic Journal suggests that people who own their own homes form denser local networks, which help unearth local jobs. Still, the jobs tend to be less well-matched and commuting distances are longer. So, professor Oswald is right to argue that we should do everything possible to free up impediments to renting or to selling a house and buying a new one. It would be handy if we were allowed to build houses near Manhattan, too.

In short, staying put is economically disadvantageous and we tend to see more rooted people in poor areas. Except in extreme cases (acute economic shock), out-migration is lowest in the regions with the fewest jobs.

I'll put it another way: Decreasing geographic mobility is bad for the economy.

Windsor, Ontario is taking the attachment to place to the extreme. The local government is planning to pay for a shuttle service that allows a family to remain while the primary wage earner heads off to the Western Provinces where work is plentiful:

A recent Statistics Canada survey showed Windsor had the worst population decline of any major Canadian census metropolitan area in 2006-07. The Windsor CMA -- which includes Amherstburg, LaSalle, Tecumseh and Lakeshore -- lost a net 1,744 residents due to migration.

The troubling trend prompted Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis to propose a commuter service that would shuttle workers to and from Western Canada. ...

... Francis describes his plan as a temporary measure designed to ease both the city and workers through an economic slump that isn't going to turn around anytime soon.

"It's only one element of a broader perspective in terms of economic development here," he says. "Obviously, we need to continue to focus our efforts on creating jobs here, but we also need to be realistic in our assessment of the economic situation and challenges we are facing. The economic challenge we are facing clearly indicates that we are going through a transition. So, we either lose these people for good, as we know is happening. They're moving out west. They're relocating their entire families. Or, we provide this program and keep these people and their skill set."

That is the mother of all commutes. For those not willing to endure the separation, they stay and help to depress local wages:

The Windsor couple tried the long-distance route for almost four months after Duguay, laid off about year-and-a-half ago from Windsor Tool and Die, started working for a company in Wetaskiwin, about 60 kilometres south of Edmonton. He returned home late last month, after securing a position with Northstar Technologies -- a Lakeshore company that services the aerospace industry.

Duguay is taking a $8 an hour pay cut to remain in Windsor, but Alberta's higher cost of living cancels out the higher wages, says Darlene.

This story makes me think of Richard Longworth's book, "Caught in the Middle." The Midwest enjoyed such a long duration of prosperity that its people became used to the idea of sticking around through a number of economic cycles. Cities built by immigrants and labor from the South transformed into museum communities. Multiple generations had no reason to relocate and the workforce, for lack of a better word, eutrophied. To give progeny a reason to stay is replicating the same efforts that handicap the Rust Belt today.

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