Friday, November 19, 2010

Mesofacts Migration: Rural Counties

Population decline is not necessarily a bad thing. But that's the common perception. Here is the typical sob story for rural America:

"Rural communities are experiencing the out-migration of their young people, an aging population, deterioration of their economic base, industry moving away. How do they maintain their vitality?" J. Robert Reeder asked rhetorically at Wednesday's meeting of the City Club of Martinsburg, where he was the guest speaker.

Net outmigration eats away at community vitality. That's the assumption. The premise is flawed:

The other set of outmigration counties, however, tends to show fewer signs of economic distress than nonmetro counties with little or no outmigration. Their residents have relatively high education, low unemployment, and better housing conditions than counties with little or no outmigration.

I recommend reading the full report. From the abstract:

Most high net outmigration counties, however, are relatively prosperous, with low unemployment rates, low high school dropout rates, and average household incomes.

Emphasis added. High net outmigration positively correlates with prosperity. This research undermines the work of Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas detailed in the book, "Hollowing Out the Middle". The culture of encouraging the best and brightest to leave benefits rural communities. Carr and Kefalas get it exactly backwards. Unfortunately, their message is garnering all the attention.

All the interest in stopping brain drain retards economic development. The better policy course is clear:

People often view the loss of young people right after high school as the critical migration issue facing rural America.

For most communities, however, population growth and economic development depend less on retaining high school grads than on attracting newcomers or former residents back later in life.

Return migration—usually defined as an individual moving back to a hometown or other previous place of residence— is a major component of inmigration to most U.S. counties.

You wouldn't know that if you read "Hollowing Out the Middle". Those authors claim that return migration is insignificant. The research is shoddy, but rural boosters readily embrace it. Established narratives of economic development are killing rural America.

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