Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rust Belt Population Boom

The eastern reaches of the Rust Belt (the part that doesn't count as Midwestern) are experiencing dramatic population gains. The growth is an inconvenient truth for those selling boomtown secrets to shrinking cities. You don't need Rick Parry to wave his magic jobs wand or buy into the latest boondoggle from Wendell Cox:

New research by demographers Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin offers counterintuitive insight into why Americans pick up and move where they do. Policymakers beware. Regardless of what we say we believe when we vote for political candidates, we Americans vote with our feet as if we're conservatives: We prefer low taxes, light regulation, school choice and jobs created by a robust free market.

Turns out that many migrants are voting for Eastern New York and Pennsylvania. Tax flight is a myth. Latinos are transforming "Pennsylvania steel country":

In the Lehigh Valley, change also came quickly. On Seventh Street in Allentown, Caribbean restaurants and storefront churches crowded out other businesses. In Reading, a city 50 miles southwest, the Census revealed that Hispanics now make up more than half the population.

Ten or 15 years ago, residents of the Lehigh Valley would rarely, if ever, hear Spanish on the street. The suddenness of that change frightened some blue-blooded, long-time city residents, and it certainly explains some of the white flight in all three cities. But as Smith, the immigration researcher, cautions, Hispanic assimilation is only mid-cycle. The majority of Hispanic families have only lived here for two generations, and a Pew study found that the median age of second-generation Hispanic immigrants is only 14 years old. In other words, the Lehigh Valley and places like it still hang in limbo between first-generation immigrants and their second-generation children, who socialized in American schools, learned the English language, and grew up on Disney and MTV.

You go where you know. Proximity still matters (and explains most migration). Best ignore immigration altogether if you want to push libertarian policies. That way you can sustain the mesofact that the Sun Belt is doing it right and the Rust Belt has it all wrong.

The exceptions to the above rule are advancing westward and fueling a population boom in left-for-dead Schenectady, NY. Utica is experiencing a dividend. Binghamton is on the cusp of positive numbers. Cheap housing is attractive regardless of policy geography.

Champions of the Sun Belt Way are running out of time. Population decline is the last bit of the Rust Belt myth. Pittsburgh, the best real estate market in the country, didn't need right-to-work legislation to bloom. Being Creative Class uncool hasn't hurt, either. Meanwhile, many Rust Belt cities (and Sun Belt cities) are vying to be the next Pittsburgh.

But I wouldn't go so far as to proclaim that Rust Belt states are doing something right. The concentration of wealth in the core of alpha global cities is displacing the underclass. That population is spilling over into Schenectady and, I predict, will reach places such as Buffalo. Little to none of that flow has a thing to do with policy.

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