Brain Drain and the Polarization of America
Are we more divided as a nation today than we were before? Our new research within the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project suggests that we are. The findings indicate that Americans are more frequently dividing themselves geographically and along lines of education. Highly educated Americans have increasingly moved to a handful of states over the last several decades, leaving other places behind.
This “brain drain” has clear economic implications. Beyond economics though, it’s also likely draining social capital from many places, as communities lose talent and resources that would help support civic institutions. Brain drain and educational sorting exacerbate political and cultural divides as well: Americans segregate themselves into communities where they more frequently reside near those similar to themselves, decreasing the likelihood of rubbing shoulders with those who see the world differently.
It’s not news that highly educated Americans are more likely to move. America’s highly educated have consistently been more prone to pack up their bags and seek opportunity outside their hometowns. But surprisingly, there have been few attempts to quantify the magnitude of the problem and assess whether it is getting worse. To rectify that, we created brain drain measures that compare the share of people leaving their birth states who are highly educated to either the highly educated share of people staying in their birth states or the share entering the states who are highly educated. We found that today, highly educated movers in the U.S. tend to leave certain states and regions of the country at higher rates than in the past and concentrate in a smaller group of states that are home to booming metropolitan areas. This leads to growing geographic divides between areas that are thriving and places that struggle. With fewer states retaining and attracting talent, more areas are left behind.
A handful of states have become exclusive destinations for the highly educated. They not only hold onto more of their homegrown talent, but they also gain more highly educated adults than they lose. These talent-magnet states are along the West Coast, as well as the Boston-Washington corridor.
Beyond the coasts, a few other states, like Texas, are retaining their homegrown talent while simultaneously winning a balance of talent from elsewhere.
These “brain gain” states are like an elite club whose members trade among themselves. For example, California draws the greatest share of its highly educated entrants from other brain gain states: New York, Illinois, and Texas, which are ranked third, fourth, and eighth, respectively, on net brain gain. New York pulls in highly educated entrants primarily from New Jersey (ranked sixth on net brain gain) and California. Massachusetts (ranked second) is also among its top five sending states. The most common origins of Texas’s entrants include California, Illinois, and New York. New Jersey draws its highly educated from the likes of New York, Massachusetts, California, and Illinois. New York and New Jersey are among Massachusetts’ most common sending states. New York, New Jersey, California, and Virginia (ranked seventh) are among the top states sending highly educated natives to Maryland.
On the opposite side of the coin are the many states that are not only bleeding highly educated adults but failing to attract others to replace them. Rust Belt states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Missouri—are particularly plagued by brain drain. Several Plains states—Iowa and the Dakotas—as well as states in New England—Vermont and New Hampshire—are also experiencing high levels of brain drain. Although this is hardly a new phenomenon for the Rust Belt, it’s become a worsening problem over the last 50 years for the other high brain-drain states mentioned.
Brain drain’s effects on state economies are obvious. Places that lose more of their highly educated adults are likely going to be economically worse off than those that retain or attract highly educated adults. And if the highly educated are concentrating in fewer areas, then more parts of the country will be prone to economic stagnation. But beyond the economic implications, brain drain also has an impact on social capital. If areas are drained of their most highly educated, those left behind may struggle to support churches, athletic leagues, parent-teacher associations, scouting groups, and so forth. These institutions matter for the well-being of communities, as they bring people together in purposeful relationships, ultimately creating the social fabric of our nation.
Another way that brain drain’s educational divides can deplete social capital is by creating deeper political and cultural divides between Americans. The highly educated more often hold liberal political views compared to those with less than a college education. America’s major metropolitan areas (many of the states that win the highly educated are home to thriving cities) tend to vote Democratic, while most other areas of the country vote Republican. Those living in urban areas are also more likely to hold liberal political views, whereas those living in rural areas are more commonly conservative.
Thus, as a result of brain drain and self-sorting, Americans are now more likely to live in communities where they are isolated from people who hold different ideologies and values. Less association between people of different viewpoints can exacerbate political divides, as people become more steeped in their own beliefs. When those who are different are further away, it is easier to cast them as a faceless group of opponents upon whom all blame for America’s problems belongs, rather than as neighbors with whom to find common ground. Ultimately, social segregation weakens the idea that, as Americans, we share something important in common with one another.
A growing federal government only adds to the problem of geographic divide. Naturally, neither heartland traditionalists nor coastal cosmopolitans want to be ruled by the other camp. However, with more power at the national level, national elections have higher stakes for everyone. Each camp feels threatened when its party loses control. With less association among those with different viewpoints, political discourse turns into fever-pitched discord.
The strength of our relationships is crucial to the strength of our nation. Americans will have to work to make their communities places in which not only the most highly educated benefit, but others as well. We must find ways to reach across the divides that separate us.
Rachel Sheffield is a senior policy advisor in the chairman’s office of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, and Scott Winship is the executive director of the committee.