Always leaving the Northeast

An unofficial flag of New England.

An unofficial flag of New England.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

Every once and while a story comes out about people leaving the Northeast, especially to move south, for jobs, lower taxes, cheaper housing, less winter and so on. These stories have been a staple of journalism since the invention of air-conditioning, which made manufacturing and its jobs more attractive in the South. And yet the Northeast remains the richest part of the country. That’s because it has the academic institutions, dense centers of skilled workers and several “world cities’ that are so closely associated with wealth creation and preservation. And it’s on the coast.

The large number of affluent people in the Northeast helps explain why property prices and taxes are so high here: They can bid up prices.

As for Northeast’s weather: Yes winter in the region can be tedious, but most of the year is fairly mild and the region rarely suffers the floods and droughts so frequent in much of the rest of the country. And we have plenty of fresh water. It’s interesting, by the way, that the happiest place in the world appears to be cold, dark Scandinavia, at least in part because of its public services. (Still, I think I’ll nip down to Florida for a week soon to break up the winter.…)

And there’s what should be an obvious reason why population growth in the Northeast is so slow – the region has long been densely populated and urbanized; it’s much further along in development than most of the Sunbelt. Consider that the seven most densely populated states are, in order of density: New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware and New York (even with the vast Adirondack wilderness). They aren’t going to empty out as people move to Florida and Texas subdivisions.

The most serious demographic challenge facing the Northeast is its aging population. This is an especially serious problem for Rhode Island, exacerbated by its deeply entrenched cynicism and parochialism; someone once called it an “urban backwater.’’ It needs a higher percentage of younger adults to start and grow businesses and to help pay the soaring social costs of the elderly. More on that to come in future columns.

I’m sure that cheaper land and lower taxes (except for regressive sales taxes, which tend to be highest in the Sunbelt) will continue to draw many from the Northeast for some years to come. But I’m just as sure that the Northeast will remain the richest part of the country. And many of those who stay will appreciate its slow population growth, which means less sprawling development, and a healthier natural environment, than in much of the country. And eventually, growing populations and other demographic change will lead to political pressures for more and better public services, more controls on land development and higher taxes in the Sunbelt – even as the effects of global warming make them more problematic.