Thursday, March 19, 2009

Stuck in Pittsburgh?

With the latest US Census data out, migration stories abound. The news continues to be declining geographic mobility:

As a result, rust-belt metro areas such as Buffalo, N.Y., Pittsburgh and Cleveland stanched some population losses, and Boston, Los Angeles and New York saw gains. Well-to-do exurbs around Washington D.C. saw growth declines as people weary of costly commutes moved closer to federal jobs in the nation's capital.

"It's the bursting of a 'migration bubble,'" said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution think tank who analyzed the numbers. "Places that popped up in migration growth in the superheated housing markets earlier in the decade are now just as quickly losing their steam."

"It's the constraint of not being able to buy or sell a home that is keeping people from moving long distances," he said.

Looking for a ray of hope in a decimated job market, Charlotte takes heart:

Some are optimistic, and predict the region will still grow, though at a slower rate. One theory is that the jobless won't leave Charlotte because the recession is so widespread there are few economically healthy places for people to move.

“Where are they going to go? The problem is there is no Promised Land,” said Joel Kotkin, an author who writes extensively about social and economic changes in American cities. “In every recession there were two or three places that were doing better. That's not the case now.”

As quoted, there is an important distinction between Frey and Kotkin. Frey claims that the real estate collapse is undermining out-migration. Kotkin doesn't see enough economic variation to justify moving. Regardless, the point seems to be that less people are leaving Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburgh for Sun Belt boomtowns such as Charlotte.

Since the migration data only reveal net migration rates, we don't know if there are excpetions to the trend. However, I did notice some interesting differences between the above three Rust Belt cities. Chris Briem continues to hint that in-migration is increasing to Pittsburgh. From 2000-2008, the net migration rate per 1000 is -2.1. But for 2007-2008, it is only -0.3. The same numbers for Buffalo are -4.8 and -2.3; Cleveland coming in at -5.9 and -5.7. As an aside, Pittsburgh is still experiencing natural decline while Buffalo (marginally) and Cleveland have more births than deaths.

Even if the out-migration rate is decreasing in Pittsburgh, it isn't a result of bad mortgages. The housing markets in Cleveland and Pittsburgh couldn't be more different. Pittsburghers are more likely staying put because the job market is so much better at home than in Charlotte.

I doubt that less out-migration really explains the dramatic change we're witnessing in Pittsburgh. The rates of people leaving have been relatively low for quite some time. The in-migration numbers were downright pathetic. My money is on more people moving to Pittsburgh as explaining the shrinking negative net migration.

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