America’s social fabric has been regularly reshaped by great migrations—of pioneers westward, of immigrants and farmers to rising industrial cities, of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North, of families outward from cities to suburbs to exurbs.
"The Uneven Fortunes of America's Cities"
Click here for a chart showing numbers of college graduates in various U.S. cities.
Today, a demographic realignment that may prove just as significant is under way: the mass relocation of highly skilled, highly educated, and highly paid Americans to a relatively small number of metropolitan regions, and a corresponding exodus of the traditional lower and middle classes from these same places. Such geographic sorting of people by economic potential, on this scale, is unprecedented. I call it the “means migration.”
The divergence of housing prices nationwide illustrates the means migration powerfully. Home values go up and down, but according to an analysis by the economists Joseph Gyourko, Chris Mayer, and Todd Sinai, since 1950 a handful of “superstar cities” (including central cities and their suburbs) has emerged nationwide—places where growth in housing prices has consistently and rapidly outpaced the average national increase, and where growth in housing supply is limited. You could probably guess most of them—cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, and Denver; the affluent suburbs of Manhattan; innovation centers such as Silicon Valley, Austin, and the Research Triangle in North Carolina.
Many of these city-regions may well be in the midst of housing bubbles today, but that shouldn’t distract us from a larger truth. In the long run, the price of real estate is the best available indicator of the “effective demand” for a particular place, and these places have been pulling away from the pack for decades. Superstar cities are, by their nature, exclusionary, and there is good reason to believe they will become more so in the future.
The means migration can be seen even more clearly in the increasing geographic concentration of college graduates. According to research by Christopher Berry of the University of Chicago and Edward Glaeser of Harvard, in 1970 human capital was distributed relatively evenly throughout the United States. Nationally, 11 percent of the population over twenty-five years old had a college degree, and that figure ranged between 9 percent and 13 percent in fully half of America’s 318 metropolitan regions. In Washington, D.C., 18 percent of the residents had finished college; in Cleveland, only 4 percent had finished.
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Over the past three decades, the percentage of Americans holding a college degree has more than doubled, reaching 27 percent by 2004, but as the maps below show, those gains have not been evenly spread. For instance, about half of the residents of Washington, D.C., and San Francisco now have college degrees—versus 14 percent and 11 percent in Cleveland and Detroit respectively. The trends for graduate degrees show a similar pattern. In Washington, D.C., and Seattle, more than 20 percent of the adult population had an advanced degree in 2004, compared with 5 percent in Cleveland, 4 percent in Detroit, and 2 percent in Newark. In the downtown neighborhoods of high-powered cities, the concentration of well-educated people is even greater. In 2000, more than two-thirds of the residents of downtown Chicago and of Midtown Manhattan, for example, held college degrees. Most rural and many suburban areas, meanwhile, are being left behind. Significantly, young graduates are flocking in ever-greater numbers to the “means metros,” where they often live in penury until either making it or being forced out by the high cost of living.