Maybe We Shouldn’t Wreck PA’s Number One Economic Engine with Education and Transportation Cuts

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Haters gon’ hate, but the Philadelphia metro contributes more than a third of Pennsylvania’s GDP and it’s the large metro regions who make it possible for everyone in the vasty middle to have nice public goods and services.

And the key sources of Philadelphia’s economic strength are its talent production institutions, its proximity to New York City, and its relatively low cost of living, as economic geographer Jim Russell explains to me in this new interview at Next City:

Russell: I like to look at net migration and gross migration, but prefer gross migration because I don’t really care which way the flow is balanced. The cities that you have a high level of exchange with are important for economic development. Looking at gross migration, New York is far and away the most important for Philadelphia. Number two is D.C., but it’s not even close. More than a quarter of the total migration is going on between New York and Philadelphia. Interestingly, the flow to D.C. when you’re looking at net migration is exceedingly negative. It’s one of the biggest brain drains for Philadelphia. Whereas New York, on net, is one of the biggest brain gains for Philadelphia.

NC: More people leave Philadelphia for Washington, D.C. on net?

Russell: On net, yes. And that was true a while back for New York as well. I expect over time what we’ve seen happen to migration between New York and Philadelphia will also happen with D.C. as D.C. becomes too expensive. We’ll see people graduate from the universities and colleges in Philadelphia, go off to D.C., and then when they get to the phase of their lifecycles where they start thinking about having a family, start looking to the next stage in their careers, they’ll come back to Philadelphia — either because they’re from there, or they went to school there, or both. That’s already happening en masse with New York. Over a 14-year period — 1996 to 2010 — the flow between New York and Philadelphia was about plus 95,000 for Philadelphia.

And you see it in anecdotal stories about Philadelphia: Return migrants who say they’re Brooklyn refugees, they’re tired of the high rents, and they’re populating various neighborhoods in the city where they can find good schools and really nice homes that aren’t ridiculously expensive. And many are keeping their jobs in New York, keeping their networks there, and still doing a lot of their work either via telecommuting or actually physically going to New York. The economies are developing together.

It seems clear to me then that the state Republicans’ strategy of putting SEPTA and Philadelphia schools on a starvation diet is a direct blow to the key sources of the city’s economic strength. By threatening to withhold $120 million from the Philadelphia school district every single year unless badly under-defined “reforms” are enacted, state Republicans are telegraphing extreme uncertainty about public school quality to would-be Philadelphians.

By failing to invest in the city’s transit infrastructure, and failing even to give the SEPTA counties local options to tax themselves to maintain or, God forbid, expand service they are tipping plenty of households’ NYC vs. Philadelphia location choices back toward the NYC side. They are ruining Philadelphia’s advantages over NYC, and in doing so, they are deterring mobile high-earners from moving to the city. Especially since NYC is about to elect a Mayor who understands the importance of well-funded public schools and better transportation options, the pro-NYC argument looks better and better.

PA spends stupid amounts of money in zero-sum competitions with other states for corporate headquarters and pathetically small numbers of jobs. Maybe instead of doing that, we should just not wreck all the things that are already attracting well-educated people to PA’s high-productivity metros.

This entry was posted in Miscellany.