Michael Barone Finds America On the Move

Michael Barone, who probably knows more about the demographics of American politics than almost anyone, recently studied U.S. Census population figures for the country’s 50 biggest metropolitan areas to see how they’ve changed since 2000. As he reported May 8 in The Wall Street Journal, Barone found some interesting inflows and outflows of native and immigrant populations that he says already are affecting the political landscape.

In what he calls the “Coastal Megalopolises” — New York, Boston, L.A., San Francisco and Chicago (the coast of Lake Michigan) — Americans are leaving in large numbers and moving inland to growing cities that he calls “Interior Boomtowns” (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Orlando, Dallas, Sacramento). Meanwhile, “Static Cities” like Seattle, Portland and Philadelphia are holding their own, population-wise, and shrinking Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo are experiencing net losses because they are not getting immigrants from anywhere to replace their dying-off or emigrating native populations.

I talked to the principal co-author of “The Almanac of American Politics" on Thursday, May 17, from his offices at U.S. News & World Report, where he is a senior writer.

Q: You recently studied the latest U.S. Census from 2000 to 2006. What’s going on?

A: Well, what’s going on is very different things in different metropolitan areas. I took a look at the 50 largest metropolitan areas — all the metropolitan areas with populations over 1 million. I cheated a little bit on the definitions, adding Durham to Raleigh and combining San Francisco and San Jose. The census has these interesting numbers that they call “net internal migration.” They refer to it as “domestic inflow” and “domestic outflow of people.” What we see in what I call the "Coastal Megalopolises" — metro areas like New York, Washington, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego — is a very massive move of Americans moving out and immigrants moving in in roughly equal numbers. That’s kind of a new phenomenon. For a long time, Americans were moving to places like South Florida or Los Angeles. That’s not the case anymore. They’re moving out and immigrants are moving in in large numbers.

We also have what I call “Interior Boomtowns,” where you have a totally different phenomenon. These are places like Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, Nashville, Raleigh, Charlotte, San Antonio, Austin. We’re seeing major movements of Americans into these areas and also movements of immigrants, but in lesser numbers; overall, there was a 3 million American net domestic inflow into these areas and just a 1.5 million immigrant inflow. Those are really the boom areas in America. They’re not located necessarily where we used to think.

Q: Then there are poor cities like Pittsburgh.

A: Six of these metro areas I took a look at are Rust Belt cities. Basically, these are having a small domestic outflow — about 3 percent or 4 percent taken together; you’re talking here about Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Rochester. They have a negligible immigrant inflow of about 1 percent between 2000 and 2006. In Pittsburgh, you actually have a natural decrease in population. There are more deaths in metro Pittsburgh than births.

Q: We’re number one.

A: Clearly, it’s an aging area. Its economy may be providing a good living for most of the people living there. We don’t see the kind of outflow that we saw in the late ’70s, early ’80s, but that in part is because young people have already left.

Q: Is there a reason for this population shift from the coastal cities? Are people cashing out their homes, tired of the rat race, afraid of immigrants?

A: I think there are a number of factors. Distaste for immigrants may be one of them. High housing costs: the elites in these cities have driven housing costs in quote “desirable” areas up to levels that are much higher than in other areas of the country. They’ve also often put in policies that say no population growth, which means that the demand for housing raises housing costs even more. A middle-income, white American in these areas has a hard time finding housing in, let’s say, the Los Angeles area, that doesn’t involve a long commute. If you want to live on the west side of L.A., that’s fine: put down a good $1.7 million for a bungalow. If you want to just buy a cheap $400,000 house, well, you’re living in South Central and you probably better learn Spanish if you don’t know it already because that’s what most of the people in the neighborhood speak in daily life.

Q: Do these growing “Interior Boomtowns” have anything in common?

A: Actually, what they have in common are vibrant private sectors. By and large, the elites there are politically more conservative than liberal, whereas the elites in places like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston are much more liberal than conservative. It’s interesting. The Democrats are decrying disparities in income — the yawn between the affluent and the poor. But you see that gap in the United States most vividly in the areas where Democrats are the strongest. The Coastal Megalopolises voted 61 percent for John Kerry and those areas have economic divides that are starting to look like Mexico City or Sao Paulo.

Q: This population flow is a recent phenomenon?

A: Well, it’s a phenomenon that’s been picking up speed. In the 1980s, California was one of the biggest inflow places. Now coastal California is domestic outflow. You see domestic inflow in California in the interior — in the Inland Empire (San Bernardino and Riverside counties east of Los Angeles, going out in the desert) and in Sacramento.

Q: How is population flow going to affect national politics?

A: On the one hand, since the Coastal Megalopolises are growing more slowly, you’re seeing a shifting away from the heavily Democratic Coastal Megalopolises and the somewhat less Democratic and much smaller Rust Belt cities toward the Interior Boomtowns, where the majority of native-born Americans tend to be religious and Republican. That Republican trend is offset somewhat by immigrants but the immigrants in those areas don’t seem to vote nearly as heavily Democratic as the immigrants in the Coastal Megalopolises.

Q: Who is going to be hurt or helped by this population flow, Republicans or Democrats?

A: Modestly it helps the Republicans. But in the short run, the Coastal Megalopolises have, by virtue of the fact that they have a lower proportion of children, they’ve got a larger proportion of adults who can vote. The (Democrat) campaign did a good job of turning them out last time and they got big majorities in those areas.

Q: Will Congress or the presidency be more affected by this flow?

A: Both. The Coastal Megalopolis states are going to lose five House seats most likely in the next reapportionment, following the 2010 Census. The Rust Belt states will lose about five seats. The Interior Boomtown states will gain 10 seats, so that’s a modest movement that tends to benefit Republicans somewhat. But we shouldn’t overstate it.

Q: Any words of wisdom for a city like Pittsburgh, which though recently named the country’s most livable city, is shrinking, economically stagnant and attracting virtually no foreign immigrants?

A: Well, you really want to try and get a more dynamic economy. One hint of that is that if you look at the Interior Boomtown cities, they’re mostly in low-tax environments, aren’t they?