Playing With Numbers: Is Rust Belt Return Migration A Viable Strategy?

View of Detroit’s riverfront.  Source:

Can enough educated Rust Belt expats return to their homes to create an economic renaissance?  It may largely depend on their reasons for leaving, the skills they gained in their new home, and the quality of the connections to the old one.

At the core of the nascent “Rust Belt Chic” movement is the belief that young adults, jaded and disillusioned by the vapid sameness of Sun Belt sprawl, would return to the rootedness and authenticity of Rust Belt cities.  Indeed, some cities, notably Pittsburgh and Cleveland, have begun to attract growing numbers of young adults in the coveted 22-34 demographic in their respective downtowns, sparking population increases where declines had been regularly registered for decades.  As the linked article above says:

“It’s a surprising demographic shift that has some in the Rust Belt wondering if these cities should trumpet their gritty, hardscrabble personas, rather than try to pretend that they’re just like Chicago or Brooklyn, N.Y., but cheaper.”

In many respects, economic growth through Rust Belt return migration sounds a little like the biblical Prodigal Son.  Here, Richey Piiparinen describes what had once been viewed as a shameful negative for Rust Belt cities as an emerging positive: 

“A reality for the Rust Belt is that people left. Cleveland’s population declined by one-third in the 1970s. Pittsburgh’s exodus occurred in the 1980s. In fact, the whole of the region exported people, with states like California historically benefiting. Commonly, domestic outmigration has been viewed akin to leprosy, with angst-ridden brain drain initiatives haranguing people to stay put…

(Instead,) think of an act of migration as a lying down of fiber optics, with each trip thickening the network between two points in space. Often, cluster relationships begin forming. Take Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. For years, the best talent would be poached at Carnegie Mellon. On the surface, this meant Pittsburgh would grow the talent and California, though an employer such as Disney Labs, would reap the rewards.

Well, as Ernest George Ravenstein wrote in “The Laws of Migration, 1885”, “Each main current of migration produces a compensating counter-current”, and this is exactly what happened between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

 This approach has been at work in Youngstown, OH for some time.  In the previously linked Salon article, Jim Cossler, CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator, shows how it’s done:

“Sexy, it ain’t. But the approach is simple and efficient: YBI uses LinkedIn to find young people who grew up in Youngstown but then moved away and now work in the computing field. “Then we make this pitch to them,” says Cossler. “We pitch them the fantastic software industry growing here in Youngstown, and the prospect of moving back to where their parents and grandparents are, and oh, by the way, have you seen our real estate prices?” So far they’re communicating with 1,800 of what he calls the “Youngstown diaspora,” and 187 of those — who now work everywhere from Austin to Tokyo to Tel Aviv — have asked to meet with him. But Cossler doesn’t believe that anyone who didn’t grow up in Youngstown will ever move there. “We’re making the case that they could run a software company for a fraction of the cost of Chicago, and their kids can see their grandparents more than once a year.”

 But honestly, can enough people, with enough skills and acumen, be brought back to Rust Belt cities to make a difference?  Using my hometown of Detroit as an example, I did a thought exercise to see.  One BIG caveat: this is the kind of exercise that is suitable to start the discussion, but hardly expansive or rigorous enough to make definitive conclusions.

Let’s start by looking at the six-county Detroit metro area in 1950, the year that Detroit reached its population peak of 1.8 million.  The six-county (Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw, Monroe and Livingston) had a combined population then of 3.3 million.  As of 2010 it stood at 4.5 million.   While the nation’s population grew at a rate of about 13 percent per decade over that period, and some metros grew at rates that far exceeded that, Metro Detroit averaged about 5.5 percent per decade.

Here’s where I start making assumptions.  Let’s say that between 1950 and 2010 there were 2.2 million births and 1.8 million deaths, creating a slight natural increase of nearly 7,000 per year.  Let’s also say that in-migrants to the region totaled 2.3 million, and out-migrants totaled 1.5 million.  That gets us to the 4.5 million number in the region today.

Now, let’s shift our focus to the out-migrants.  That’s 1.5 million people who theoretically left the metro area over that period, embarking for places unknown.  How would we account for them today — how many are still around, how many are in various age cohorts, how many could be expected to migrate to a new home by 2020, and how many might reasonably come back to the metro area?

For no other reason than just a wild-assed guess, I’m thinking 20 percent of the 1.5 million out-migrants are deceased, leaving 1.2 million.  Adults who made their move out of Metro Detroit prior to 1970, for example, are less likely to be around today.    Of the remaining 1.2 million, another wild-assed guess suggests that 40 percent are over 55, 30 percent are 35-54, 20 percent are 15-34, and ten percent are under 15. 

How many might actually return?  Here’s a chart that could begin to define some parameters:

Here I’m putting into place some general perceptions most people have about mobility.  Those over 55 are less likely to put up stakes, while those under that age are more likely to do so.  The most mobile group would be the 15-34 age cohort, either young adults (25-34) or youths moving with their families (15-24).  

In all, I’m suggesting that of the 1.2 million that could be in the Detroit Diaspora, 216,000 (18 percent) could be expected to move between 2010 and 2020.  Of those, nearly 46,000 (21 percent) might be persuaded to consider a return to the Motor City.  That’s about one percent of the current metro area’s total.

There is a lot of flex in these numbers.  First, developing a realistic number of people in the Detroit Diaspora is critical to the analysis.  Second, there are actual figures on mobility that exist and could be put in place. Third, people who might be persuaded to return might also bring along a significant other or child or two, altering the numbers.

But the real secret sauce is in determining how many people would actually entertain a return to their old haunts.

3 thoughts on “Playing With Numbers: Is Rust Belt Return Migration A Viable Strategy?

  1. I don't necessarily buy that the “Rust Belt” is impossible to sell to people who have never lived there. Yes, a decent portion of migration back to the region is of the “boomerang” variety, but a lot of it is now people from the extra-large cities escaping the high cost of living while not being too far away.

    In the last 10 years, Pittsburgh has seen an increasing influx of newcomers from New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC. This is part of why I've said before that I believe Pittsburgh is slowly being pulled into the East Coast orbit. It's only four hours from Washington DC, five hours from Philadelphia and six hours from New York, so it's close enough to become an outpost for the megalopolis. I expect this trend to accelerate as the Pennsylvania Turnpike is reconstructed with six lanes, and even moreso if Amtrak ever gets around to upgrading the “Keystone West” line between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

    Detroit, I believe, should capitalize on the fact that Chicago and Toronto are becoming more expensive. As crazy as it might sound, I think Detroit could be “the next San Francisco,” where people who have been cast out from society can find a welcoming home. I'm speaking more of the 1960's- and 1970's-style San Francisco than today's San Francisco, though, which is the embodiment of gentry liberalism taken too far.

    The one I'm not quite as certain about is Cleveland. It already exchanges a lot of people with Chicago, and it siphons off a few people from New York as well, but it's more than six hours from the East Coast, which seems to be the maximum time distance somebody can move away and still feel “close to home.” This threshold probably explains why Pittsburgh's exchange with New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC combined is nearly triple that of Cleveland's.

    Thing is, I don't know if any of these cities should specifically try to target native-born residents who left. First of all, not everybody left on good terms. There are many people who are glad to be gone, and those people and the cities they moved away from are better off without each other. Second of all, there's the saying, “You can never go home.” The Pittsburgh/Cleveland/Detroit that these people left doesn't exist anymore, so even if they are open to returning, the cities could be alien to them now. I say just try to improve the mundane aspects of each city and let other people discover them for themselves.


  2. I agree that there are many migration avenues for Rust Belt cities besides simple return migration. I could see another type that, for example, might see a Flint expat who moved to Atlanta come back to Detroit. That person wouldn't be captured in this analysis, but would fit the profile. And I also agree that the migration universe for the Rust Belt cities is not just potential boomerangers.

    I think you're onto something about Detroit being a 21st century version of late sixties SF. In fact, the kind of new pioneer thinking that would be behind that might push Detroit toward growth faster than most realize.


  3. I grew up in the Detroit suburbs, moved west about 15 years ago for graduate school, and have been here ever since. In the past year or two, though, I've considered moving back to the region for a couple of reasons: financial, aging parents who may need care in the coming years, etc.


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