Don’t fear the brain drain: Why some economists aren’t worried about Pennsylvania’s youth loss

By: - March 19, 2019 7:08 am
Pittsburgh is often portrayed as ground zero for Pennsylvania's population loss.

Pittsburgh is often portrayed as ground zero for Pennsylvania’s population loss.

Pennsylvania is getting grayer by the day. This week on the Capital-Star, we’re exploring why young people are staying and leaving the commonwealth — and what the state can do to keep them. Have a story to tell? Email us.

In the 1990s, a business development group in Pittsburgh issued a casting call for a character named Border Guard Bob, who was to star in a series of public service announcements broadcast throughout Western Pennsylvania.

At the time, the Pittsburgh region was recovering from a one-two hit of recessions in the early 1980s. The loss of steel jobs led to massive out-migration of young people and their families. A decade later, local college graduates were still leaving the area in droves.

Enter: Border Guard Bob.

A concept for one of the ads is described in a Post-Gazette report from 1999. In it, the uniformed sentinel was to stand at the Pennsylvania border, where he’d intercept young people trying to cross state lines.

FULL COVERAGE: The Capital-Star’s Brain Drain Series

Border Guard Bob would implore them to change their minds. But as their car drove away, bound for the greener pastures of Ohio or West Virginia, he was to hitch a bungee cord to the vehicle’s bumper, before turning to the camera to say: “They’ll be back.”

The Border Guard Bob ads never aired. The Post-Gazette reported that the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, which conceived of the idea, abandoned the project before it entered the production phase.

But according to people who study migration in Pennsylvania, the anxieties that inspired the campaign still persist.

“Border Guard Bob is not dead,” Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research, said. “In the ‘90s, long after we started losing young people, we were all focused on keeping them here. This type of thinking is a constant.”

As an economist who studies migration trends, Briem fields a lot of questions about Pennsylvania’s supposed brain drain: the droves of young, educated workers who decide that they’re allergic to the Keystone State.

Lawmakers and business leaders fear that the condition will gradually erode Pennsylvania’s tax base and population of working-aged adults. If current trends continue, they say, the state will have fewer people to pay for its schools and infrastructure, to care for aging adults, or to balance out rising healthcare costs.

Those scenarios have inspired countless policy proposals from the General Assembly, where lawmakers say that everything from 4 a.m. bar closing times to student loan repayment programs could stem the tide of young people out of the state.

“We are hoping that this also helps with the brain drain in Pennsylvania,” Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, said in November 2018 while promoting a bill that would bolster the fledgling autonomous vehicle industry.

For the last 20 years, Briem has been pushing back on the idea that the problem even exists.

Briem knows the facts: Young people (generally defined as those aged 18 to 34) leave Pennsylvania at a faster rate than any other age group. The ones who who leave the state every year also outnumber those who move in.

<img class="wpa-image-missing-alt size-medium none" src="" alt="This image requires alt text, but the alt text is currently blank. Either add alt text or mark the image as decorative." /> Population data for 2016 show that people aged 18-34 are more likely than any other age group to move out of Pennsylvania. Source: Pennsylvania State Data Center at Penn State Harrisburg.
Population data for 2016 show that people aged 18-34 make up almost half of the population of people who left Pennsylvania that year. Source: Pennsylvania State Data Center at Penn State Harrisburg.

But Briem says those figures shouldn’t be read as a rebuke of Pennsylvania. Nor are they a sign that the Commonwealth is a ghost town in the making.

Instead, Briem says those patterns are inevitable, given that young adults are the most mobile segment of the American population. As he sees it, nobody — not lawmakers, businesses, or doting parents — should want that to change.

“Young people move, and there is nothing abnormal or bad about that,” Briem said. “You don’t want to slow the rate at which young people are moving.”

Briem doesn’t deny that migration and demographic patterns are important objects of study. The exodus from Pittsburgh in the 1980s, for example, taught leaders to nurture diverse regional economies that don’t rely on a single anchor institution or industry.

That period also explains why the region’s current population is so elderly, Briem said. The workers who left in the 1980s took their families and future families with them, reducing the  number of people who would grow up in the state and be young adults today.

Southwestern Pennsylvania lost more than 50,000 people aged 25-29 in the 1980s -- an event that continues to affect the age distribution of the region's population today. Source: Chris Briem/Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly, June 2014.
Southwestern Pennsylvania lost more than 50,000 people aged 25-29 in the 1980s — an event that continues to affect the age distribution of the region’s population. Source: Chris Briem/Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly, June 2014.

But for all the current hand-wringing about young people leaving Pennsylvania, Briem and other experts say the state doesn’t have much cause for concern if it looks closely at demographic data.

Jim Russell, a geographer who studies regional economies and migration, said that analysts are quick to publish “headline numbers” that suggest troubling demographic trends. Such was the case with a 2017 report from the state Independent Fiscal Office, which found Pennsylvania was losing more educated millennials than it kept.

The IFO reported that 34,000 people between the ages of 20 and 35 moved to the state in 2015, but 47,000 left — a net loss of 13,000 potential residents.

Those figures can instinctively raise alarm, Russell said. But by the same metric, most of America’s most desirable places also suffer from brain drain — including New York City, which registers a net loss of tens of thousands of young people every year.

The number of people who leave New York City and the New York metropolitan area reliably outnumber, by thousands, the people who move in each year. Source: Baruch College Weissman Center for International Business, Feb. 2018.
The number of people who leave New York City and the New York metropolitan area reliably outnumber, by thousands, the people who move in each year. Source: Baruch College Weissman Center for International Business, Feb. 2018.

“Lamenting brain drain is a human condition,” said Russell. “If you see a negative migration trend, everyone starts wringing their hands and asking, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ They feel rejected. But often, the data don’t support that.”

According to Russell, some of Pennsylvania’s regional economies have characteristics that are easy to misread as signs of economic distress. Pittsburgh, for instance, has low birth rates, high rates of out-migration, and a large population of senior citizens.

Together, these factors result in a net population loss, which people quickly interpret as a symptom of regional decay.

But Russell said that meager population growth is actually a sign of a mature economy. Pennsylvania’s cities have already weathered the downturns — such natural disasters and municipal finance meltdowns — that will eventually wallop the boom towns of today.

As for those low birth rates and high mobility rates? Both indicate a highly advanced and educated society, Russell said.

“Most economically successful places have very high out migration rates of well-educated young adults, because we expect ambitious talented people to seek out broader horizons,” Russell said. “Lots of locals are leaving [hometowns] because people did really well there and realize their home is not the entire universe.”

That was certainly the case for Cornelius Johnson, one of the thousands of young people who left Pennsylvania in 2018.

A lifelong Harrisburg resident who was elected to its City Council in 2015, Johnson resigned his private sector job and council seat last September to take a new job in Atlanta.

Johnson says he wasn’t actively looking to leave Pennsylvania at the time. But he also had an inkling that he wouldn’t reach his full potential if he stayed in the same place his whole life.

As a black man, he also felt that people of color weren’t well represented in corporate leadership roles in Central Pennsylvania.

“I was comfortable in Harrisburg,” Johnson said. “I was able to serve my community, work for a great company, and had a lot of opportunities that most people don’t have in that region. But, you know, another door opened up that allowed me to grow and learn more and see more.”

Implicit in the concerns about brain drain, Russell said, is the mistaken, widespread belief that all population growth is good.

If a declining population and high migration portend collapse, then one can assume that population gains and high rates of in-migration breed prosperity.

Oftentimes, Russell said, that couldn’t be further from the case.

He pointed as an example to the city of Reading, which has logged substantial population growth in the past 15 years — the result of “overflow immigration” from New York.

But as Reading’s population climbed, so too did its poverty rate. The city’s population grew from 81,000 to 88,000 between 2000 and 2010.

In 2011, it was named the poorest city in America.

“Clearly, population growth does not equal prosperity,” Russell said. “Our fundamental disconnect comes from the fact that population growth or positive net migration has become an end goal and not an indicator.”

Ultimately, Russell thinks that political leaders fixate on brain drain because it relies on simple math: people in minus people out.

It’s an easy idea to communicate to voters, and a convenient banner to fly over a policy proposal.

But in doing so, Russell said, lawmakers and their constituents lose sight of more vexing problems: issues like yawning income inequality rates and affordable housing shortages, which can’t be fixed with simple, short lived policies tailored to a specific industry or segment of the workforce.

“Cynically, I think a lot of the focus on brain drain is due to fact that these are big issues that politicians are unprepared to take on,” Russell said. “That’s the hard stuff.”

Border Guard Bob wasn’t the PRA’s only campaign to get people to think twice about Pittsburgh. They also touted the region’s transformation in this undated video.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.