Sep 30, 2007

On the Continued Decline of the Rust Belt

A poster at Toledo Talk raised the question of how to stem the tide of population and business losses that the area of Northwest Ohio continues to experience. Between 2000 and 2006, the population in Lucas County has decreased 2.1 percent, while the population in Toledo fell by 1.5 percent in the same period.

The population declines in Northwest Ohio are part of a much larger historical phenomenon of the exodus of industry from the Midwest to the Sun Belt and overseas, which can be traced as far back as the rural electrification projects of the 1930s. Projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority brought cheap electrical power to the South and West, giving these regions a competitive advantage that began to take fruit in the 1960s, and the lower labor costs in these formerly underdeveloped areas of the United States were an additional attraction.

From the period of 1970 to 1990, the population in Lucas County fell by over 20,000 people, or nearly 5 percent. During this same period of time, the population of the United States increased by 69 million people, a rate of population growth of over 38 percent.

While I applaud (and encourage) efforts to keep businesses and individuals from leaving the area, I think we have to recognize that this is a difficult trend to reverse. We do have one natural resource (fresh water) that will be in much greater demand in the coming decades, but the likelihood is that there will be great temptation to create fresh water pipelines to the Sun Belt.

It's cheaper to move water than people.

Some of the arguments put forth to "fix" the Rust Belt - the lowering of taxes, weakening of unions, or improving of government services - are more like short-term Bandaids than "cures." While I am not necessarily an advocate of massive government spending to reverse the demographic trend of movement away from the Rust Belt, we will not see significant change unless there is some exterior force brought to bear on the problem.

This might be technological in nature (paradigm-changing transportation innovations, akin to the early 1900s and the automobile), meteorlogical (sudden climate change), sociopolitical (government subsidies to encourage investment or relocation), or some other radical change in the status quo.

Placing the blame for decades-long demographic trends on such problems as weak public schools, poor delivery of government services, or high municipal/county/state real estate taxes might make us feel better in the short run, but does little to recognize the larger phenomena. People pack up and leave an area en masse only when conditions become so unfavorable that other areas seem like paradise.

We might grumble about taxes, schools, and trash pickup, but we leave when there are poor opportunities in our hometown.

One field in which I have some interest is that of education. Newly-certified teachers in Ohio can hang around here and hope that they find an opening (with the exception of math and science teachers, for whom there is still demand), or they can pick up a newspaper and find high-paying positions galore in places like Florida, Texas, and Nevada. Recruiters at annual job fairs at UT and BGSU are signing up graduates from Northwest Ohio by the busload, and in some ways it is ironic that Ohio taxpayers are paying to train the next generation of teachers for cities like Las Vegas and Orlando.

I wish I had simple solutions for the problem of demographic hemorrhage, but taking the approach that reversing this trend is simply a matter of cutting taxes or privatizing schools is like standing on the beach trying to punch the oncoming tidal waves.

1 comment:

Mr. Schwartz said...

I was in Youngstown, Ohio a few years ago visiting a old college friend. Looks like a newest tall buildings there were built in the 20s.