Comprehensive Study Needed to Examine Cincinnati’s Migration Problem

Cincinnati has a problem with attracting immigrants.

While it is the largest metropolitan region in Ohio, Cincinnati lags behind both Cleveland and Columbus in attracting foreign migrants. Even as Cleveland continues to lose population and struggles with a weak economy, Cincinnati, with its much stronger economy and national recognition, attracts fewer of America’s newest residents.

More alarmingly, at 4.6%, Cincinnati ranks behind all of its regional competitors (Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis) in percentage of foreign-born population. Columbus (10.5%) and Indianapolis (8.4%) have double or nearly-double the percentage of foreign born population. Cincinnati only bests Pittsburgh and Louisville in terms of attracting immigrants over the past three years.

International Migration 2010-2013

The United States as a whole continues to attract millions of new immigrants. They’re just not coming to Cincinnati at the same rate as elsewhere.

Mayor John Cranley’s (D) recent announcement to start an initiative to grow the immigrant population in Cincinnati is a welcome one. With statistics showing that immigrants are more likely than non-immigrant Americans to start a business, a flux of foreign residents would be good for Cincinnati’s economy in more than one way.

Cranley is not unique among mayors in cities across the nation that have suffered massive population losses since the 1950s. From Baltimore and Philadelphia, to Detroit and Dayton, cities across the country are now targeting immigrant communities in order to help bolster populations and foster economic growth.

Preferably, Cincinnati’s quest to attract new immigrants will be part of a larger plan to attract new residents, period. While lagging behind in attracting immigrants, the region also continues to shed existing residents to other parts of the country.

International - Domestic Migration in 2013

Local leaders should authorize a comprehensive study to find out why Cincinnati struggles so greatly with attracting domestic and international migrants. With a growing economy and incredible regional assets, there is no reason why Cincinnati should fail so miserably at attracting new people.

It may prove wise to set city funds aside to create some sort of media blitz that touts the benefits of the city and the surrounding region. With a recent Gallup poll showing that 138 million people around the world would choose to move to the United States if given the opportunity, the market for new immigrants is surely present. Some sort of economic incentive would help as well. Tax breaks for immigrant businesses and incentives to live within city limits will help attract immigrants of all economic levels.

It is not a stretch to imagine that Columbus’ ability to attract and retain so many more immigrants than Cincinnati is due to the presence of Ohio State University, one of the nation’s most prominent public universities. As a result, Cranley should take heed and foster greater cooperation between the City of Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University, using those nationally-recognized institutions to attract even more newcomers.

At the end of the day, however, immigration is a national issue. For that reason, regional leadership should be in active dialogue with Cincinnati’s Congressional delegation and lobby them to support immigration reform and initiatives that will help attract immigrants not just to the U.S. in general, but to the Cincinnati region specifically.

  • It should be pointed out that the ACS estimates (by my tally based on county-county flows from recent 5-year estimates) that we’re pretty much breaking even on migrants. Each year an estimated 62,000 people come in, 64,000 go out. Compared to other cities, that’s almost perfectly level.

    Also, and this is an interesting one, if we’re doing better than Louisville at attracting immigrants, we also seem to be losing quite a few Cincinnatians to them. The same survey data estimates 1,200 people moving FROM Louisville to the Cincinnati MSA, 2,100 going the other way each year. One other kicker: We seem to be posting a net gain from the flow of immigrants between new NYC, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, DC, and a couple other cities that you might think would be more ‘attractive’.

    Big margins of error on all these estimates, so take them with a large grain of salt.

    • The data we show here is for MSA level statistics, not county level. But yeah, it’s essentially the same thing. All the domestic migration losses are essentially offset by the international migration gains.

  • Mark Christol

    Look at the racial make up of the cities. The ones faring the worst on the chart all have large black populations while the ones doing the best have smaller to insignificant black populations.
    Obviously it’s a multi-faceted issue but that’s pretty glaring.

    • EDG

      Eh, these cities didn’t boom until well after the Great Migration was over.

  • subocincy

    Like numerous Cincinnatians, I’m also confounded and troubled by these statistics. While such stats don’t necessarily indicate a crisis, neither do they suggest the opposite. (Therefore, the concern.) Personally, I thought Mark Christol’s comment below a provocative one, but how may any of us follow up on his observations w/o launching a combative “PC discussion” of another order?

    And (btw), along such delicate lines of racial discussion… Before we here in Cincy award either Mpls/StP and Cbus accolades for their “inward immigrant migrations,” let’s not only remember their huge, prestigious and powerful state universities, but also realize that these two cities have recently absorbed hundreds, if not thousands, of Somali refugees, thanks to the US government. (Need I say more about their “positive immigration stats”?)

    • While Columbus and Minneapolis/St. Paul have large state universities, so does Cincinnati. The University of Cincinnati has around 42,000 students. Sure, it’s about 10,000 less than OSU, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

      And yeah, becoming a designated place for refugees is hugely beneficial for cities in terms of increasing their international immigrant population. St. Louis and Detroit have benefited from this in the past.

      Whether that is “positive” or “negative” immigration is something I’ll leave for others to discuss. We were just looking at numbers here. But personally, I’m not sure it’s easy to say that refugee migrants are good or bad, because you don’t really know their situation. One might assume they are coming from a rough background, but that may not be the case. Nor should coming from a rough background necessarily make you more or less desirable.

  • matimal

    Cincinnati had significantly more international immigrants than Pittsburgh, the new darling of urbanists.

    • Pittsburgh was a real shocker to me when I examined the data. I thought, for sure, no one could top Cincinnati’s poor performance on a relative basis, but Pittsburgh somehow managed to do so. If Cincinnati gets an F for their performance, Pittsburgh gets an F-.

    • Neil Clingerman

      I think Pittsburgh has way better boosters than Cincinnati does. I keep harping on this, but Cincy should be proud of and should promote what it’s got – its quite exceptional in a lot of ways and really one of the biggest things holding it back is its massive inferiority complex combined with a weird complacency – too much complaining and not enough demanding change.

    • matimal

      Cincinnati’s and Cleveland’s international migration look identical in the chart you used in the article.

    • They are not. In examining the raw numbers, Cincinnati saw an increase in international migrants of 3,326, while Cleveland saw an increase of 3,698. While 372 is not a big number, it becomes more significant when you consider the fact that the Cleveland MSA is smaller than the Cincinnati MSA, and that the Cleveland MSA is losing population.

      It’s a bit difficult to notice the difference in the International Migration chart due to the scale used. It is more noticeable in the second chart showing both International and Domestic migration in 2013 only.

    • matimal

      what you describe is not a meaningful difference to me.

    • EDG

      Pitt has a significantly greater number of universities.

  • CollegeHill_45224

    @ Mark Christol. Large black populations? I wouldn’t consider 255,905 people (12%) a large black population. That’s including the whole metro area. On the other hand Charlotte has a much larger African-American population than we do, and they’re not doing to bad.

    • matimal

      the black migration of the early 20th century that brought blacks northward and the history of blacks who stayed in the south are very different. The isolation of northern blacks in cities put them at enormous disadvantages and in a very different situation to southern blacks in and around places like Charlotte. It’s ghettoized northern blacks that many business and individuals seek to avoid.

    • EDG

      Cincinnati wasn’t impacted by the Great Migration to the extent Cleveland and Chicago were. So that right there refutes his argument since those cities are doing better than Cincy. I don’t think there’s any connection between historic minority population and attracting immigrants of a different race today.

    • matimal

      Cleveland is not doing better than Cincinnati at attracting immigrants.

    • The Cleveland MSA is losing population and has fewer people overall than the Cincinnati MSA, yet it still attracts more international migrants on an annual basis than Cincinnati. So yeah, I would say Cleveland is performing better.

  • Clinton Stähler

    It is interesting how the same articles re-posted on websites in both Cincinnati and Columbus include commentary with very different perspectives. Columbus is decidedly Ohio’s new leader in this area. The key for Cincinnati is retention. That light blue bar should not be in the negative—that is a problem of young people leaving Cincinnati for places like Austin, North Carolina and even Louisville. However, as Cincinnati continues its efforts to resolve this exodus of young talent, that light blue bar should continue to shrink and eventually go back to the positive. By that time Columbus will have caught or passed Cincinnati in metro population, and both cities will hopefully continue moderate growth. The long term outlook for both cities is pretty good. The long term outlook for Cleveland, on the other hand, is not so great.

    • matimal

      More self-serving promotion from the home of America’s finest parking lots. A third of metro Cincinnati is in Kentucky. Where in these numbers do you see evidence of “young people leaving Cincinnati”? Cincinnati is not experiencing an “exodus of young talent.” Those leaving have lower incomes and educations than those coming. The key to Cincinnati is no more “retention” than it is the key for Columbus. The key for all is to improve the balance of labor and housing markets. You’re wrong on all counts, Clinton, but by all means enjoy Columbus’ high-quality and ample parking.

    • The Cincinnati MSA, which includes Northern Kentucky, is losing a good chunk of its existing residents to other places, and it is one of only three metros examined in this analysis that are in the red on this metric.

      I didn’t run the numbers regarding the age breakdown of those people that are leaving, but it is an analysis that is possible with this Census dataset. I have a feeling, however, that there may not be any clear age correlation to those that are leaving the region.

    • Clinton Stähler

      Randy, that is well said. I do not know from where “matimal”‘s bitterness stems, but Cincinnati’s lack of growth is due to lack of retention. The chart tells that part of the story very clearly. The fact that Cincinnati is negative on “domestic” migration is indicative of native Cincinnatians leaving. Columbus, on the other hand, is a net gainer in both domestic and international migration. The evidence is objective, as is my commentary, and neither should evoke such an emotional and personal response—an attack aimed at both myself and the City of Columbus, neither of which have I “promoted” here.

    • This is a conversation I’ve had with Aaron Renn several times. Outmigration is not in and of itself necessarily a bad thing. In fact, most major cities around the nation are in the red when it comes to domestic migration. This includes places like New York and Chicago.

      The real issue is the region’s lack of inmigration. We can pump existing residents out to other places, but they need to be replaced by a larger crop of newcomers. This is what happens in the major cities in North America. They pump out a lot of existing residents, but welcome in a ton of international migrants every year. Cincinnati is just pumping out a bunch of existing residents without completing the circle and pulling in a bunch of new ones. This is a problem.

    • Clinton Stähler

      There are only three cities on the chart above with net losses on the domestic side; and Americans are not emigrating, but we are continuing to urbanize. So for every city with a net loss in domestic, some other U.S. city is picking them up. New York, one of the world’s leading international immigration cities, is one of a handful of outliers among U.S. cities that maintain net gains despite domestic losses. None of the cities on the chart above are in that group. Cincinnati cannot, in a practical sense, count on becoming a magnet for international immigration on a scale large enough to counter domestic losses. Cincinnati should (and I believe will) continue to focus its efforts on retaining the talented, mobile people it already has. This same chart looked even worse for Cincinnati less than a decade ago. Things truly are getting better.

    • Here’s why I say that:

      “The three largest metros – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – all lost Americans to the rest of the country. New York saw a net outflow of more than 100,000 from 2012 to 2013. Los Angeles and Chicago each saw a net outflow of roughly 50,000….about a third of all large metros saw a net outflow of domestic migrants. These metros are a diverse bunch, including America’s three largest city-regions, New York, L.A., and Chicago; expensive, high-tech powerhouses like San Jose and San Diego; and unsurprisingly, large swaths of the Rustbelt, including Detroit, St. Louis, and Milwaukee.”

    • Clinton Stähler

      We are in agreement. My point is, Cincinnati is not in that peer group, nor is it likely to be in our lifetime. And its key to maintaining net gains lies in improving its domestic side, not in trying to become an international or high-tech powerhouse like New York, L.A., San Diego, or San Jose.

    • matimal

      There are many US metros losing americans, not just these three. All people count, wherever they are from. Retaining is not a successful strategy. It isn’t Columbus’ strategy. the place is a revolving door.

    • matimal

      “Clinton”, you didn’t offer any evidence, only opinion. Rationality or irrationality doesn’t come in in to it. The chart in the article shows nothing about age, income, wages, or education, all things you expressed an opinion about with respect to Cincinnati’s demographics. If you’ve got evidence I’d love to see it.

    • matimal

      You are saying that MSA Cincinnati is losing population?

    • No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying the region is losing a “good chunk of its existing residents.” That’s what domestic outmigration is.

      The region overall is gaining population thanks to net gains in international migration (essentially offsetting the domestic migration losses) and natural population growth (births outpacing deaths).

      You can download the dataset for yourself here:

    • matimal

      Why does it matter where people come from?

    • I’m not saying it matters. I’m merely commenting on the facts.

      The region’s population growth would be more robust if it weren’t losing so many of its existing residents. Of course, it could also be more robust if our international migration rates weren’t so tepid.

      As I said earlier, many big cities actually have net domestic population losses, including LA, NYC and Chicago, but they have huge international migration rates that more than make up for their domestic losses. This is not the case for Cincinnati. Our domestic population losses are just about equal to our international population gains.

      Cincinnati is a bit of an outlier here, because, as shown in the article, most of Cincinnati’s peer cities actually posted domestic gains, not losses. If you’d rather compare us to the larger metros that also lost a lot of domestic population, then you can see we also are an outlier there for the fact that we didn’t also add a large number international migrants.

      It seems that most cities either add both domestic and international at small rates, or they lose domestic and gain international at extremely high rates. Cincinnati, Cleveland, Louisville and Pittsburgh fall into none of those categories.

    • I haven’t seen the numbers, but anecdotally I think Cincinnati is slowly solving its retention problem. Just talk to UC graduates. When I applied to UC in 2005, everyone asked me, “Why go to that place?” When I graduated in 2010, some of my friends stuck around (mainly for family), but even though Cincinnati was slowly improving it still had nothing on the opportunities in New York, Boston, Philly, Seattle, L.A., Chicago, etc. Now, some of these same friends who moved away are eyeing coming back. They’re seeing the changes in the urban core, and remembering how cheap housing is here, and saying, “Hey, Cincinnati is a pretty great place after all.”

      FYI: matimal has been on these boards (and just about every other blog I’ve come across) for years smearing people. I don’t know his angle, but, my advice is the standard “Don’t feed the trolls.”

    • Clinton Stähler

      You are absolutely right on all of that. Many of the efforts undertaken in Cincinnati have already proven to be successful. I said that above – the net domestic loss has been shrinking. Once it is back to zero or even goes positive (which I believe it will within the next decade), the city and metro will enjoy moderate growth rates again. Even now, the metro is still experiencing some growth. As for the urban core, we’ll have to wait for the next set of published data, but I believe the decline in the city’s population has seen the bottom and might actually be on the rise, at long last. Even if that is not yet the case, the trend is reversing. The rate of decline has been slowing and if the bottom has not passed yet, it is very close. With moderate gains, Cincinnati could realistically climb back over 300,000 by the end of the decade. I believe it will climb back over 400,000 eventually – in its 78 square mile footprint. Columbus, with its robust 217 square mile footprint, is projected to exceed 1 million by the end of the decade. By that time, the Columbus metro is projected to be just over 100,000 smaller than Cincinnati’s and both will have comparable densities in both city propers and metros. As sprawled as Columbus has developed, we are infilling at a feverish pace. The downtown area alone is in the process of adding 6,000 more residents in projects newly open and/or currently under construction. The city is finally having serious discussions about fixed-guideway transit now as well. Both Columbus and Cincinnati are among the healthiest Midwest cities right now in terms of new development. This is the most exciting time for Ohio so far in my lifetime, and we’re just getting started. Unfortunately, Cleveland is still an outlier. Although urbanization seems to have reached most American cities now (including downtown Cleveland), the prognosis up there is continued losses across the city and metro for the foreseeable future.

  • EDG

    You have to look at the ridiculous hurdles immigrants have to jump through just to remain here. You either need to be enrolled in a university or working on a visa that hasn’t yet expired, this is reflected in our immigrant clusters around Clifton and Mason. I know of two acquaintances within the past year that have both lost their work visas simply because they’ve timed out, with one having to go back to Germany. Both of these people had bachelors degrees and had been working and going to school in the U.S. for years.

  • Steven Fields

    Maybe the metro needs more consulates. I think it only has France and Germany. Cleveland has 8.

    • That’s a terrific point. I wonder if the number of consulates is a result of larger number of international migrants, or the cause of. I’m guessing it’s some combination thereof, but you bring up a fascinating topic.

      I’ve heard that there is a growing Colombian population in the region. As the region attempts to forge stronger connections with South America, perhaps this could be a building block.

  • ohnonotgee

    come to price hill you want migrants!!! are you people crazy?