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What the Rust Belt Can Teach Us About White Flight, Gentrification, and Brain Drain

With a focus on why people leave, we ignore at least half of the migration story.
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(Photo: trekandshoot/Shutterstock)

(Photo: trekandshoot/Shutterstock)

The dying cities of the Rust Belt shouldn't have brain gain. But they do. Real estate appreciation within an urban core suffering from demographic decline doesn't make any sense. Yet these neighborhoods exist in places such as Buffalo and Pittsburgh. To be young, college-educated, and white means to flee where manufacturing used to rule. Boom goes Detroit. Concerning migration, expect the unexpected in America's legacy cities.

The story about Rust Belt shrinking cities doesn't translate well to the overall metro. In 1950, the population of the Pittsburgh metro was about the same as it is today. As for the city proper, the population now is about half of what it was in 1950. This sprawl is commonly referred to as "white flight." Whites, who were not restricted by racist practices such as redlining, escape something bad. Intolerant of African Americans in close proximity, whites fled the city for the suburbs. Certainly, there is ample proof of the push. But there is also ample proof of the pull, the allure of suburban living.  We don't have the data to determine if the migration actually was white flight:

‘White flight’, the self-selection of white British people who dislike diversity out of multicultural wards, could account for white tolerance in diverse areas and relative intolerance in adjacent districts. This question has not been properly addressed because most previous research has run into data limitations. Longitudinal surveys – those which sample the same people every year – are needed to examine movers. In Europe or the US these do not ask subjective questions so it is impossible to track the opinions of movers. Work with the US Panel Study of Income Dynamics, for example, tells us that whites move to whiter areas than minorities. There is, however, no way of discerning whether anti-immigration whites are overrepresented among those moving to whiter areas.

We see what looks like white flight. Without the longitudinal surveys, scholars (at best) guess at intent. Without the longitudinal data, no one can disprove white flight. The more popular narrative wins the day.

Concerns about gentrification suffer from the same limitations of perspective and data. Was a tenured resident pushed out (displaced) or seeking a better neighborhood? Last June, Lei Ding presented preliminary findings that attempt to answer that question using a relatively new data set. To date, displacement (like white flight) is assumed. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck. Turns out, the research results do suggest displacement. The trick is to tease out aspirational migration from moves to places that are no better and might be worse. Regardless, all moves out of a gentrifying neighborhood do not qualify as "flight."

Brain drain is white flight. Brain drain is gentrification. Again, people don't move somewhere to get better. People leave a bad place. Or, bad things happen which cause people to leave. Why would anyone leave a "good" place? "The truth about push factors":

The lesson extends beyond sudden crises. Successful development assistance will typically increase emigration from low-income countries in the medium and long term. Officials commonly claim the opposite: that assisting economic development in poor countries, such as Yemen and Ethiopia, will reduce migration pressure from there in years to come. But research by one of us (Clemens) finds exactly the reverse pattern. Emigrants leave middle-income countries, such as Algeria and Albania, at about triple the rate that they leave the poorest countries. With greater earnings, they acquire the means, education, and contacts to depart. Only when countries surpass middle-income status, with further increases in prosperity at home, does migration pressure typically start to lessen.

With a couple of important caveats, an improving economy (a place gets better) exacerbates out-migration. Acquiring an education acts as a push factor. More accurately, an education makes potential migrants more aware of pull factors. Prosperity begets white flight. Prosperity, not displacement, is a major reason why people leave poor neighborhoods. Prosperity makes one more likely to leave home. In a nutshell, that's Rust Belt migration.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.