Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Opportunity Migration

In the latest issue of Next American City, author Benjamin de la Peña sums up the urban attraction:

Cities don't impoverish people; rather, as Edward Glaeser puts it, cities "attract the poor" because they generate economic opportunity.

That makes sense when describing the emptying of the rural hinterlands. But how would one model an escape from the Big Apple? The New York Times looks at the black exodus:

Ms. Brown, who spent 35 years investigating welfare fraud for New York State, may have seemed the embodiment of the black American dream in New York City.

In the 1950s, her parents moved to Harlem, and then to Queens, from Atlanta. Her grandmother was a maid; her grandfather was a brick mason. One generation later, her parents were prospering. Her father became a senior tax official for the state; her mother was an executive assistant to the state corrections commissioner.

But Ms. Brown says New York is now less inviting. She plans to join her 26-year-old son, Rashid, who moved to Atlanta from Queens last year after he graduated with a degree in criminology but could not find a job in New York.

In Atlanta, he became a deputy sheriff within weeks. She is hoping to open a restaurant.

“In the South, I can buy a big house with a garden compared with the shoe box my retirement savings will buy me in New York,” she said.

Less-than-New York City now looks like much more, a big fish in a small (less expensive) pond. Opportunity as a destination is recast. That's how I would define the Rust Belt value proposition, particularly for Rust Belt Refugees. There's no place like home, where the ceiling of success is so much higher. Your trip up the ladder is so much faster.

Migrants to Big City end up with the same realization as Odysseus. You travel a long way to end up in the same place. Which isn't to say that the journey wasn't worth it.

Secondary migration, which includes return, is less discussed because it is more difficult to track. I expect the trend of heading "home" to deepen if only for the reason we will be more aware of it. Talent is looking for big city advantages without all the costs.

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