Shrinking City Myths

Rust Belt population woes tend to be a lack of inmigration, not outmigration and brain drain as is commonly assumed.
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Rust Belt population woes tend to be a lack of inmigration, not outmigration and brain drain as is commonly assumed.


Pittsburgh is dying. Residents are fleeing the city. Via Chris Briem, immigrants will save the Rust Belt:

"We've had neighborhoods decimated by population loss, and the only way we rebuild is by bringing new people here," said Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto, a mayoral candidate who includes attracting immigrants in his campaign platform.

The efforts are most evident in the Rust Belt, a region historically strong in manufacturing that a century ago was a leading destination for immigrants. During the fresh immigration surge in recent decades, however, newcomers largely bypassed Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis as manufacturing there—and other cities in the region—dwindled. They opted instead for cities such as Phoenix and Dallas.

Between 2000 and 2011, the Rust Belt, stretching from western Pennsylvania to the Mississippi River, was home to 18 of the 25 fastest-shrinking cities in the U.S. Their proportion of foreign-born residents, moreover, lagged well behind the national average of about 13 percent, with less than five percent in some cities. So while Pittsburgh and Dayton, Ohio, for instance, bled residents, they also missed out on a national immigrant boom that saw the population of foreign-born residents in the U.S. grow by 25 percent over the last decade, compared with an eight percent rise in native-born residents.

Pittsburgh bled residents. Yes, way back in the 1980s there was an impressive exodus. Between 2000 and 2011, Pittsburgh did not bleed residents. The population loss was mainly an issue of more deaths than births, the demographic legacy of outmigration that occurred decades ago.

Rust Belt population woes tend to be a lack of inmigration: "newcomers largely bypassed Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis." When the numbers go down, the assumption is brain drain. The problem is lack of brain gain. But locals won't hear of it despite the preponderance of data stating the contrary.

Another factor is sprawl. Braddock, near Pittsburgh, is the poster child for population decline. The typical story starts with shuttered steel mills and ends with workers relocating to the Sun Belt in search of jobs. Braddock lost 90 percent of its population. Ironically, the steel mill in town is still running. Where did the people go? To the suburbs:

These days most consider population loss in Braddock the result of industry decline which isn't really the core. If you look longer term at the numbers, Braddock's population loss was well entrenched while the local Steel industry was doing well. Local workers were able to move out into newer suburbs as their wages went up and did so long before the 1980s. I'd say the bulk were long gone from Braddock itself by the time the steel related job losses accelerated. It just highlights how difficult the problems in Braddock are being both an inner suburb losing population to further suburbs, and being at the center of the steel industry's implosion.

Couples have fewer children. Families took their blue collar wages to the suburbs. No one wants to move to Shittsburgh. That all considered, are more immigrants really the answer to shrinking city problems? The focus should be on economic development, not population numbers. Job creation is a good reason to attract immigrants.