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When they do, a city’s population loss is reversed rather quickly as immigrants move in to capture the openings left by departing residents. A 2003 Brookings Institution study found that five of six metropolitan areas, including New York, with the biggest exodus of residents in the 1990s also had the largest influx of foreigners. By contrast, Rust Belt cities such as Detroit have experienced only outflows since the 1960s.
Why? New Yorkers were mostly leaving for greener pastures elsewhere, while Detroit’s residents are mostly fleeing to escape a lack of opportunities.
Kaufman argues that a relevant experience for Detroit and Baltimore isn’t in New York, but in Israel’s development-town experiment in the 1950s and 1960s. The Israeli government tried to settle newcomers from North Africa, Yemen and Romania in Galilee and the southern part of the country to ease crowding in the cities and coastal regions. It offered big incentives to the new residents in hopes that they would stay and flourish. But the efforts mostly didn’t pan out, and the immigrants left to join their communities elsewhere.
It turns out, immigrants aren’t pioneers whose survival depends on conquering an inhospitable frontier. Yes, they can put up with far greater hardship than the native-born, but they aren’t clueless ingenues who are easily seduced. They have word- of-mouth networks that alert them to places that offer them the best economic and social fit, making it difficult to plunk them anywhere and expect results.
So what should Detroit, Baltimore, and other struggling cities do to become more attractive to immigrants? Offer them a decent quality of life at an affordable price. This means improving schools, tackling crime, creating an entrepreneur- friendly climate and keeping taxes reasonable.
In short, fix the economic engine first.
originally appeared in Bloomberg View.