Pittsburgh's Brain Drain Game

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Rust Belt communities are obsessed with brain drain. The demographic losers of economic restructuring, cities are employing a variety of strategies to stop the bleeding and keep the talent from leaving the region. Akron, OH recently voted down a proposal to lease the city’s sewer system in order to fund a scholarship program designed to plug the holes of out-migration. The voters balked at the initiative partly as a result of the 30-year residential commitment necessary to reap the full benefits of the funding for post-secondary education in Akron schools.

You would think plugging the brain drain seems like a good idea. I thought so when I decided to help Southwestern Pennsylvania solve its declining population problem. However, a few months into the project I determined that the exodus from Pittsburgh ended almost two decades ago. The devastating loss of young adults in the early 1980s still echoed throughout the area and informed a great deal of policymaking.

The most comical anti-brain-drain campaign was Border Guard Bob, a product of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance who was invented to keep local graduates around home. The pitch was that Pittsburgh is too great of a place to leave, if you knew where to look. Bob was retired before his unveiling, hopefully because he was too ridiculous even for our local leaders, but the spirit behind it remained.

I’m not aware of any successful anti-brain-drain program, but Pittsburgh continues to try despite having more college graduates than the region can employ. If anything, Greater Pittsburgh suffers from a glut of talent that stubbornly tries to stay. Average wages are below even those in nearby Cleveland, which sports notably more unemployment and a much more acute foreclosure crisis. Yet the initiatives keep coming.

The Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project (PUMP) claims to better enfranchise young adults living in the city. The ultimate goal is to retain talent by giving them reasons to stay. Empowering residents is noble enough, but I doubt PUMP can deliver the population boost the City of Pittsburgh desperately seeks.

Maybe the problem is not that Pittsburgh or other Midwest cities are unattractive places to live. Instead the roots of the out-migration lie elsewhere – in dysfunctional economies and wretched politics. It’s not lack of “cool places” to hang out but things like a declining tax base and a growing pension debt that effectively hamstring the city.

Frustrated job seekers aren’t heading to the Sun Belt because they need a cooler place to hang out. They are looking for jobs and opportunities. And if they hang around until their thirties, they then leave to the surrounding suburbs and their better schools.

The Pittsburgh Promise, a child of the Kalamazoo Promise, offers a better alternative. Thanks to money from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), the City doesn’t have to lease its sewers in order to provide graduates from Pittsburgh public schools with scholarships. The suburban schools don’t look quite so attractive when we are talking about a free ride for college.

But even if it’s a step in the right direction, the Pittsburgh Promise still won’t keep families from moving to Charlotte, NC. It certainly won’t attract families from Austin, TX. Therein lies the flaw. There are no mechanisms to bring new talent into the region. Without substantial in-migration, particularly immigration, no Rust Belt city is likely to experience an economic renaissance. But the focus is always on the people who leave. The real problem is why people don’t come.

Just about anywhere in the Rust Belt, the perception of brain drain and actual rates of out-migration are horribly out of whack. This past summer, the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University issued a report that concluded that the number of young adults in the state was growing faster than the national average during the period of 2000-2006. The cry to stop brain drain in Michigan – epitomized by Governor Jennifer Granholm’s “cool cities” program – has never been louder. The rhetoric doesn’t concern me, but the ineffectiveness of the programs should give everyone pause.

Basically fighting out-migration is a losing cause. The US Census found a positive correlation between increasing levels of education and the greater likelihood of leaving a region. Should Pittsburgh stop investing in its schools in order to better retain residents? Of course not. But this is no more absurd than spending a lot of money to keep people from seeking opportunity elsewhere.

If you are a parent, then the idea of moving in order to improve your children’s opportunities makes sense. However, for a community to invest in a student likely to leave the economic area presents a conflict of interest.

The Pittsburgh Promise isn’t a bad idea. Maybe it will encourage people to stay or even move in from the suburbs given the carrot of subsidized college tuition. But that won’t alleviate anemic regional population growth. Pittsburgh needs to sell itself globally as a place where you can access opportunity, either for yourself or your children. Pittsburgh must attract new blood. Pittsburgh, essentially, needs economic growth.

I’ve labored over the best way to align the interests of individuals with that of the community concerning geographic mobility. I think the solution is, counter-intuitively, to promote out-migration. Pittsburgh’s exodus during the early 1980s was impressive, perhaps uniquely so. The result is what I call the Burgh Diaspora, the scattered expatriates who still retain an unusual preoccupation with their hometown.

My idea is to use the Burgh Diaspora like an alumni network, to help Pittsburghers get a leg up on globalization. You can always find an ex-neighbor prepared to help you. Facilitating this odyssey could deepen loyalty and might eventually spark a return migration. But my hope is that non-natives would also appreciate this value proposition, seeking access to the diaspora network.

Read Jim's Rust Belt writings at Burgh Diaspora.



















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The U.S. government is making a lot of program cuts. So are the states themselves; many are facing huge budget shortfalls as well. Obama is leading the charge as he takes a hatchet to the federal budget. (He did promise to.) The nation's finances were a key issue in the last presidential campaign. A period of restructure was destined to happen in this recession. First to go is a facelift for Homeland Security, which will no longer be getting $3 million to design a new logo. More changes to federal spending are to follow, so we may save ourselves further installment loans through program cuts.