Brain drain is an old problem for Pennsylvania | The Numbers Racket
People meet for a monthly design critique meetup at Coalwork, a co-working space in Scranton. (Colin Devroe/Flickr)
In April, state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, convened a roundtable to discuss something on his mind: brain drain.
The term refers to educated people in their 20s and 30s leaving their home state to find greener pastures elsewhere.
But the problem — if you believe it is one — isn’t new.
“It looks familiar,” Penn State professor emeritus Gordon De Jong said at the April roundtable. “The patterns of 20 years ago, loss of young adults, is still continuing.”
In fact, the number of highly educated people between 31 and 40 who leave Pennsylvania has remained pretty consistent over the past few decades, according to a new analysis of Census data by Congress’ Joint Economic Committee. Here’s some information about the methodology:
We define a highly-educated “leaver” as someone in the top third of the national education distribution who resides in a state other than her birth state between the ages of 31 and 40. We then analyze brain drain using two measures: “gross” brain drain and “net” brain drain. Gross brain drain is defined as the share of leavers who are highly educated minus the share of adults who remain in their birth state (“stayers”) who are highly educated. Net brain drain is the share of leavers who are highly educated minus the share of entrants to a state who are highly educated.
First, let’s look at gross brain drain from Pennsylvania over the past several decades. The number represents the percentage gap between highly educated leavers and stayers.
The situation looks significantly less dire when looking at “net” brain drain — “the share of leavers who are highly educated minus the share of entrants to a state who are highly educated” — although the number is trending in the wrong direction for Pennsylvania.
How does Pennsylvania stack up against the rest of the U.S.? Not great, ranking at 11th among states with high net brain drain:
North Dakota: 19.9
South Dakota: 14.6
West Virginia: 10.4
Pennsylvania rises in the rankings (again, that’s a bad thing) to 8th when looking at gross brain drain.
The Joint Economic Committee notes that, despite Pennsylvania’s high gross and net brain drain, the state experiences low outmigration, which measures the number of people across all demographics who leave the state. That’s common among Rust Belt states including Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
But — there’s a “but.”
“The impact of brain drain in these states is lessened by the relatively small share of people born in the state who leave, but this may be cold comfort, as the leavers are better educated than the stayers and entrants,” the committee wrote.
There’s a reason lawmakers are so worried about brain drain: money.
Pennsylvania is an aging state, with growing obligations, that does not tax retirement income — making it a popular destination for people out of their working years. Someone has to pay to run the place.
That could be accomplished by, for example, taxing retirement income or levying a sales tax on clothing, two politically unpopular moves.
But the congressional committee argues that lawmakers shouldn’t solely focus on economics when talking about brain drain:
Brain drain has significant consequences—economic, yes, but also political and cultural. By increasing social segregation, it limits opportunities for disparate groups to connect. And by siphoning a source of economic innovation from emptying communities, brain drain can also lead to crumbling institutions of civil society. As those natives who have more resources leave, those left behind may struggle to support churches, police athletic leagues, parent-teacher associations, and local businesses. State and local policymakers are understandably focused on the economic consequences of brain drain. But anyone concerned about the health of associational life in America should worry that what this report has mapped out, to some extent, is the geography of social capital drain.
In a recent Capital-Star series on the issue, young people who are choosing to stay in Pennsylvania cited a “cheap cost of living, familial connections, and a chance to be a distinct part of a tight-knit community.”
There are migration factors that states can’t control, like where a person’s family lives, Penn State’s De Jong told the state Senate committee last month. But there are drivers outside of good-paying jobs, such as restaurants, urban living, and a sizable single population.
“These young people are going with a cost-benefit based on expectations,” De Yong said. “You have to change expectations.”
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