#734 – Losing Our Minds: Brain Drain Across the United States

Posted on | The Agurban

We were very intrigued, and concerned, with a recent report from
Congress’ Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project that looked at the migration of highly educated citizens over the past 80 years. While some of the information is not surprising, some of it is quite alarming. Below is the Executive Summary, in part, and the Conclusion of the research.

Losing Our Minds: Brain Drain across the United States

Executive Summary
Over the past 50 years, the United States has experienced major shifts in geographic mobility patterns among its highly-educated citizens. Some states today are keeping and receiving a greater share of these adults than they used to, while many others are both hemorrhaging their homegrown talent and failing to attract out-of-staters who are highly educated. This phenomenon has far-reaching implications for our collective social and political life, extending beyond the economic problems for states that lose highly-educated adults.

This report describes what this so-called “brain drain” looks like across the 50 U.S. states. We use data from the 1940 through 2000 decennial censuses and the 2010 and 2017 American Community Surveys to measure brain drain in each state.

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.

States which retain and attract highly-educated adults stand to reap substantial economic benefits. At the same time, those that bleed much of their homegrown talent will see their economic fortunes decline if they fail to replace the leavers with highly-educated out-of-staters. Yet even if they do manage to offset their losses, these states are still losing a vital source of social capital.

What is more, the outmigration of highly-educated adults has almost certainly played a role in the deterioration of civil society in struggling communities across the country. And to the extent that the geographic mobility of the highly-educated has increased social bifurcation, it has likely exacerbated distrust of and intolerance toward people who hold different beliefs. One need only glance at today’s polarized political environment to see these attitudes on display.

Our research finds that states that are doing the best—low gross brain drain and net brain gain—generally cluster along the Boston-Washington corridor and on the West Coast: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, California, Oregon, and Washington. Other brain gain states are regional hubs—Hawaii, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, and Illinois. Several of these states experienced high gross brain drain and net brain drain in 1970, but have reversed course; others have seen continued good prospects or improvements on one or both measures.  For the most part, these states are home to what Richard Florida would describe as “winner-take-all cities.”

On the other hand, states in the Southeast, in the Rust Belt, and in other parts of the country tend to fare much worse when it comes to retaining and attracting the highly-educated. Several states in the Southeast—West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—had low gross brain drain and net brain gain in 1970, but today generally experience high gross brain drain as well as net brain drain. Most Rust Belt states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Missouri—have done poorly on these measures in both 1970 and 2017. Perhaps unsurprisingly, states that defy these regional trends (for example, Illinois in the Rust Belt, and Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia in the Southeast) seem to be attracting highly-educated out-of-staters to their dynamic metropolitan hubs.

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.

Full report