The Diaspora Report: Are Californians dreamin' ... of a Rust Belt destination?
Here's a question that wouldn't have been asked two decades ago, at least not by anyone sane:
Is California the new Rust Belt?
The visual evidence says no, what with all those swaying palm trees and the shiny new Conan O'Brien "Tonight Show" studio. But the empirical evidence is different:
• An outmigration of native-born domestics? Check.
• An inability to retain its college-educated? Check.
• An eroding middle class? Check.
• Financial issues? That's a big, fat, governator-sized check.
Makes you wonder where all these college-educated, middle-class folks go to, if every city and state from Pittsburgh to California is desperately seeking them. Maybe there's a secret compound in Kansas.
But this isn't about Kansas. It's about California, ostensibly.
"California is no longer a preferred destination, at least for domestic migrants," writes Bill Watkins, an economist and professor at California Lutheran University. "The state's economy is limping along considerably worse than that of the nation. Opportunity is limited. Housing is relatively expensive, even after the dramatic deflation of the past two years."
That means people aren't moving there. Or at least, more Americans are moving out of California than moving in. Immigrant population growth (almost half a million a year) and a positive birth-to-death ratio has masked that negative migration statistic, but it's one that places like Pittsburgh have been dealing with for decades.
California has "been negative migration for 10 of the last 15 years," Mr. Watkins said. "It just reflects the lack of opportunity here." It's a problem many college centers, like Pittsburgh, face -- more job-seekers and grads than there are jobs -- but in California, the problem is statewide, not local.
California, for much of its history, has been a terminus for wanderers and fortune-seekers; as of 2007, a full 63 percent of Californians were born in another state or country. But the number of non-domestic migrants is slowing, and the native-born seem to want out.
The new immigrants are "much lower human capital than what we see leaving," in terms of education and earning potential. The poor and the rich, retired baby-boomers, are left behind, "but there's not much of a middle class," Mr. Watkins said.
The thing is, it's happening in all of the coastal megalopolises, not just in California. Take New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, Washington, Boston and Chicago (coast of Lake Michigan) -- the domestic outflow from these metro areas is about 650,000 a year, writes U.S. News & World Report's Michael Barone. And that was before the housing collapse:
"This is something few would have predicted 20 years ago. Americans are moving out of, not into, coastal California and South Florida, and in very large numbers they're moving out of our largest metro areas. They're fleeing hip Boston and San Francisco and ???Washington. High housing costs, high taxes, a distaste in some cases for burgeoning immigrant populations -- these are driving many Americans elsewhere."
So what does all of this mean for the real Rust Belt?
"Return to Pittsburgh" blogger Jim Russell (author of the blog formerly known as "Burgh Diaspora" and still at burghdiaspora.blogspot.com) is, as usual, bullish on Pittsburgh's future:
"California's economic Gordian Knot represents huge opportunity for post-industrial centers of innovation such as Pittsburgh. Long ahead of the national trend of an aging workforce, Pittsburgh is at a tipping point and poised to get younger while most other cities get older. California's looming talent shortage is particularly dire."
The Great Recession has the potential to ripple through the lake in ways we can't yet predict, tweaking long-term demographic trends in subtle ways. Maybe California and the rest of the coastal megalopolises, which are sending hundreds of thousands of people into the Red State heartland each year, will eventually start sending some of their migrants to Pittsburgh.
We've sent tens of thousands of Pittsburghers to California over the past 25 years, but lately, the inflow-outflow has become more balanced.
From 2000 to 2006, we sent 2,200 Pittsburghers to the Los Angeles metro area, and they sent us 2,300 Californians in return, according to IRS data. That's partly because we're running out of people to send, but maybe there's more to it than that.
"There's this notion that the Rust Belt is the new American frontier," says Urbanophile blogger Aaron Renn in an interview with Crain's Detroit Business. "There's no more West to settle, there's no more wide open space to conquer -- where is the next wide open frontier?"
These coastal domestic migrants have to move somewhere, after all. It's either us, or Detroit, or Dallas. Or Kansas.
First Published June 5, 2009 12:00 am