The Heart of Demographic Doom

Nearly a century ago, during the Great Migration, less-educated individuals were the ones who left home in search of better lives. The opposite is true today, with the educated more mobile than ever before, leaving some places in a spiral of decline.
Publish date:
Social count:
Nearly a century ago, during the Great Migration, less-educated individuals were the ones who left home in search of better lives. The opposite is true today, with the educated more mobile than ever before, leaving some places in a spiral of decline.
US 49 runs through the Mississippi Delta. (PHOTO: BRANDONRUSH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

US 49 runs through the Mississippi Delta. (PHOTO: BRANDONRUSH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

These days, a lot of places are dying. Varying degrees of demographic decline plagues the wealthiest countries. Projections for developing nations look dire, too. One of the gloomiest takes I read this week concerns the Eurozone. Forget brain drain. Youth drain portends more catastrophic consequences:

Therefore as Krugman said, the combination of labor mobility with internal devaluation and lack of fiscal union in the Eurozone is potentially lethal. There is no possibility of recovery for countries caught in the deadly embrace of high public debt and youth migration. For them, "internal devaluation" actually means creeping desertification.

Yikes.  We needn't gaze into a crystal ball to see the doomsday scenario. Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece might want to visit the rural areas of the Mississippi Delta region just south of Memphis, Tennessee. The epic tale of how long economic cycles punish certain geographies:

The farm jobs have also disappeared, for the most part. Whereas hundreds of laborers would once have been needed to weed, pick and process cotton on the land his family owns, Mr. Angel notes, machines now do almost all of that work. Mechanization, coupled with a desire to escape back-breaking work in the fields, prompted the first wave of emigration, between the 1940s and the 1970s.

More recently local factories have been closing, overcome by foreign competition. Greenwood, another Delta town, lost piano, zipper, and tire factories, among others. Chicot County lost several catfish farms, a factory making catfish feed and another making gloves. The advent of several casinos, two on riverboats and one on dry land, brought some hope of revival to Greenville. But one of them recently closed and the others are bringing fewer visitors and less revenue into the city than residents hoped.

The Delta was already poor before these setbacks, a legacy of slavery. Issaquena County, which has suffered the most severe depopulation, had 7,224 slaves in 1860 and just 587 whites. Its total population today is 1,386. Their average income is just over $10,000, half the level for Mississippi as a whole, and 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is 17 percent, more than twice the national rate. The entire county has 10 private businesses (other than farms), employing just 99 people. Like the region as a whole, it suffers from low rates of education and high rates of obesity and diabetes.

“You can’t out-poor the Delta,” says Christopher Masingill, joint head of the Delta Regional Authority, a development agency. In parts of it, he says, people have a lower life expectancy than in Tanzania; other areas do not yet have proper sanitation. Persistently poor places, in turn, naturally experience high levels of emigration, says John Cromartie of the Department of Agriculture, as people leave in search of a better life. It is not just the lack of jobs, points out John Green of the University of Mississippi: even those trained in fields where openings are available, such as nursing, say they would rather move away, to provide their families with better schools and greater opportunities.

Emphasis added. The mechanization of agriculture devastated rural communities, catalyzing the Second Great Migration to northern industrial cities. The same pattern ravaged manufacturing, the force behind Rust Belt shrinking cities (leaving out the often overlooked surburbanization of population). All the while, birth rates plummet. The good news is that the Innovation Economy requires less people for greater productivity. The bad news is that the Innovation Economy requires less people for greater productivity.

Which brings me to the answer of the declining geographic mobility mystery. I don't know why I finally made the connection. I've quoted this passage from economist Enrico Moretti a few times:

At the time of the Great Migration in the 1920s—when more than two million African Americans abandoned the South for industrial centers in other regions—less-educated individuals were more likely to migrate in search of better lives. Today, the opposite is true: The more education a person has, the more mobile he or she is. College graduates have the highest mobility of all, workers with a community-college education are less mobile, high-school graduates are even less and dropouts are the least mobile of all.

Emphasis added. Migration used to be yeoman's work. The first born son who inherited the land had little incentive to move. The poor had to go where the jobs were located. All that changed starting around 1970. Richard Florida describing the geographic shift:

According to research by Christopher Berry of the University of Chicago and Edward Glaeser of Harvard, in 1970 human capital was distributed relatively evenly throughout the United States. Nationally, 11 percent of the population over 25 years old had a college degree, and that figure ranged between nine percent and 13 percent in fully half of America’s 318 metropolitan regions. In Washington, D.C., 18 percent of the residents had finished college; in Cleveland, only four percent had finished.

Over the past three decades, the percentage of Americans holding a college degree has more than doubled, reaching 27 percent by 2004, but as the maps below show, those gains have not been evenly spread. For instance, about half of the residents of Washington, D.C., and San Francisco now have college degrees—versus 14 percent and 11 percent in Cleveland and Detroit respectively. The trends for graduate degrees show a similar pattern. In Washington, D.C., and Seattle, more than 20 percent of the adult population had an advanced degree in 2004, compared with five percent in Cleveland, four percent in Detroit, and two percent in Newark. In the downtown neighborhoods of high-powered cities, the concentration of well-educated people is even greater. In 2000, more than two-thirds of the residents of downtown Chicago and of Midtown Manhattan, for example, held college degrees. Most rural and many suburban areas, meanwhile, are being left behind. Significantly, young graduates are flocking in ever-greater numbers to the “means metros,” where they often live in penury until either making it or being forced out by the high cost of living.

Today, migration is white collar work. The first born son no longer gets the silver spoon and must move to D.C. to find employment. As for the poor, they are stuck in places outside the reach of globalization. There is no Great Migration for those without a college degree. Mississippi Delta blight pops up in the South Side of Chicago. The eroding middle class is geographically inert.

Geographic mobility used to mean upward mobility. For many African Americans, the way out was the way up from poverty. The migration tables have turned as those with a college degree not only agglomerate in a few cities, but in select neighborhoods. Less people moving means less people participating in the global economy. They are tethered to places doomed to demographic decline. Long economic cycles no longer punish certain geographies. They punish certain classes. When people can't develop, places die.