Pertaining to brain drain hype, Michigan has no equal. So profound is the out-migration that a local broadcasting network coined a term: Michigration. This was in January of 2008. I did a little digging and discovered the fuel for the story was a United Van Lines study about Michigan’s net loss of residents.
Net population loss is often confused with emigration. Upstate New York, another brain drain case for a future article, is no exception. The Federal Reserve Bank branch in Buffalo issued a report that tried to clear up the confusion, explicitly stating the challenge is attracting more people instead of the assumed issue of retention.
Michigan is in the same boat. There is nothing remarkable about the rate of out-migration from the state. What is shocking is the lack of newcomers. Most of the Rust Belt has a problem with a distinct lack of in-migration.
Another oversight of the media is the aging population. Rarely does natural decline make the news. Of course, that “problem” doesn’t lend itself to political gain. That is too bad because making better use of an aging workforce is a missed opportunity. Shouldn’t talent retiring in Michigan be celebrated?
A third misconception about shrinking cities is that the best and brightest are heading to hip out-of-state destinations. The truth is many graduates go no further than the suburbs, resulting in the donut pattern of urbanization. Those that venture beyond likely end up in the next state over, not halfway across the country. A lot of talent moves from one Rust Belt city to another. Much of the rest – although perhaps not the offspring of the remaining economic and cultural elite – shifts to those areas that have been creating jobs, particularly places like North Carolina, Texas and, before the recent bust, Arizona and Florida.
In and of themselves, reports of Michigration are harmless. But popular perception is often used to push various initiatives such as Michigan’s Cool Cities:
Building vibrant, energetic cities that attract jobs, people and opportunity to our state is a key component of Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm's economic vision for Michigan. Governor Granholm kicked-off the "Cool Cities" initiative in June, 2003 throughout the state, in part as an urban strategy to revitalize communities, build community spirit, and most importantly, retain our "knowledge workers" who are leaving Michigan in alarming numbers.
The promise is that cooler cities will keep talent from leaving the state. I challenge Governor Granholm to list the top-10 Cool Cities in the United States and their respective out-migration rates. How do Michigan cities compare? How do you quantify “alarming numbers”?
US cities with the fastest growth rates in population tend to have the highest rates of emigration. Ironically, shrinking cities have relatively weak out-migration. Furthermore, the college educated are much more likely to leave any state or metro than people with just a high school education. Knowledge workers leaving Michigan is normal. The low number of knowledge workers arriving, from out of state, is abnormal. Neither better urban place-making nor more tolerance on its own shows any strong positive correlation with less brain drain. In fact, the opposite may be true. Cool Cities simply hasn’t delivered.
We do understand that knowledge workers are geographically fickle. But Governor Granholm fails to put the attraction of talent on top of the agenda. She continues to play to fears of Michigration as justification for significant investment in the state’s cities. I’m not anti-urban. On the contrary, I’d like to witness the revitalization of Rust Belt downtowns. But sprucing up an aging downtown in a region with massive job losses will not get the job done.
The most promising research I’ve read comes from Edward Glaeser, an urban economist at Harvard University. The best investment of public money would seem to be in human capital, education. What would attract well-educated parents would be better schools, something the suburbs have mastered. Inner city Detroit’s main competition for talent is the communities ringing around it.
Michigration will not be stemmed by being “cool” but by providing some sort of opportunity for a decent middle class life. If Michigan could combine its excellent Universities, skilled workforce and low housing costs with a decent business climate, and significant school reform, perhaps the state would again become a beacon for entrepreneurs and knowledge workers.
Read Jim's Rust Belt writings at Burgh Diaspora.