Rust Belt Outliers

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What kind of migration patterns will emerge as a result of the current economic downturn? The recession is uneven; some places are much worse off than others. Those differences can give labor cause to move. Economic geographer Edward Glaeser thinks cities with marginal manufacturing legacies should attract a lot of people because the well-educated, living in dense urban environments, should get through the crisis relatively unscathed. If Glaeser is correct, then shrinking Rust Belt cities can expect more of the same even after the recovery begins in earnest. Pittsburgh brains should continue to drain.

Ironically, the latest US Census data indicate that the population decline in the Rust Belt is slowing as a result of less out-migration. A contracting economy has, according to demographer William Frey, helped to stop the bleeding from cities such as “Buffalo, N.Y., Pittsburgh and Cleveland.” One of the cited factors for decreasing geographic mobility is the collapse of the real estate market. Job seekers are stuck in their current place of residence.

Another pressure to stay put is the economic climate of typical Sun Belt destinations such as Charlotte, NC or Phoenix. Unemployment there might be much worse than what you are seeing in your current location. There is no reason to move because the situation is bad everywhere. The “pull” factors have all but disappeared.

Of course, evaporating home equity and massive layoffs throughout the country are not mutually exclusive. These two forces could be working in concert to stem the tide from struggling Rust Belt cities and the explanation of the waning migration is quite reasonable. But I’m not so sure it makes sense in the case of Pittsburgh.

During the mortgage meltdown, the Pittsburgh real estate market has remained remarkably resilient. While foreclosures have decimated Cleveland, Pittsburgh’s prudent financial industry stayed away from bad loans. Pittsburgh is now rated as one of the most stable real estate markets in the entire country. Home ownership isn’t holding back the out-migration of Pittsburghers.

As for unemployment, the job market is much better in the Pittsburgh region than it is in Charlotte, NC. That’s why solvent financial institutions in Southwestern Pennsylvania are advertising employment opportunities in Pittsburgh South (a.k.a. Charlotte). For those with the ability to relocate, Pittsburgh has a much better job market than Charlotte.

But if we are talking about Pittsburgh out-migration, we should mention Washington, DC, the #1 destination for those seeking better opportunities than they can find near home. Charlotte is pretty far down that list. Sun Belt economic distress is causing Pittsburghers not to migrate as much to the sunbelt, thus pinpointing the reason for the dramatically falling (from the 2005 peak) net out-migration. In contrast, DC is still a viable job market, with numbers trending towards population gains.

Are more people moving to Pittsburgh? Few seem to consider the possibility. Perhaps William Frey has access to out-migration data that aren’t public, which is why he lumped Pittsburgh in with Cleveland and Buffalo. But less out-migration doesn’t mean that there isn’t more in-migration. Pittsburgh attracting more talent from other regions would be news.

Despite the manufacturing legacy that Glaeser details, there are Rust Belt cities that have bucked the population trends. Chattanooga, historically an industrial river city much like Pittsburgh, has begun to grow again after decades of shrinking. Pittsburgh isn’t necessarily doomed to being a shadow of its former self and may well separate even more than it already has from the Rust Belt pack.

Staying with Glaeser’s observations, the economic geography of Pittsburgh might help us understand why migration fueled growth is possible. Manufacturing cities tend to lack a critical mass of highly educated talent and economic activity is less concentrated. Among Midwestern cities, Pittsburgh’s gains in college attainment since 1970 “have been the most rapid.” Pittsburgh’s human capital assets are much improved. And despite the obvious sprawl, Pittsburgh also enjoys considerable economic density. Its college corridor is just five-miles long, connecting downtown with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Internationally renowned research universities are located in close proximity to the central business district.

Might the above assets translate into greater in-migration? Perhaps, but the odds are against it. However, something unusual is going on in Pittsburgh. Whether or not that will inform job growth and economic development remains to be seen.

Read Jim Russell's Rust Belt writings at Burgh Diaspora.

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