What Does Cincinnati’s Nativity Rating Mean for Its Long-Term Migration Prospects?

Cincinnati has a migration problem that is two-fold. First, it lags behind most major metropolitan regions in North America when it comes to attracting international migrants. Second, and perhaps more significantly, is that the region has a stagnant domestic population.

This is not because domestic migrants are any more or less important than international migrants. But rather, it is because stagnancy is a major problem for cities.

As many demographers and social scientists have pointed out, focusing public policy on retaining existing talent is a bad approach. In fact, large movements of people out of one region can be a very positive thing. That is, of course, if it is balanced out by a large influx of people into that same region. This is the case for North America’s largest cities, and is also evidenced at a larger scale in California.

But beyond that, older Midwestern cities with a large cluster of high-quality universities also seem to export more people than they import. That, in and of itself, is not the problem.

“This notion of the university as a “factory” gets very close to the truth,” Aaron Renn, owner of The Urbanophile, wrote in 2010. “A friend of mine noted that if we treated steel mills like universities, Indiana would be obsessing over “steel drain” and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on programs to try to keep steel from leaving the state.”

Renn went on to say that the notion of doing such a thing would be ludicrous, and that it is important to understand the details of what is really going on when it comes to a region’s migration patterns.

“Migration does matter. Any city that thinks it can be blasé about this is fooling themselves,” wrote Renn in a separate piece. “On the other hand, surface numbers only tell us so much. We need to understand the dynamics going on underneath the hood.”

By most comparative measure, Cincinnati actually does very well compared to many places at retaining its population. The problem is that it does very poorly at bringing in new people from outside the region.

Based on five-year estimates from the American Community Survey, this stagnation can be clearly seen.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the areas of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) which have the highest percentage of people living there that were born in another state are near state borders. Since the Cincinnati MSA stretches across three states, you can see that movement of Ohio residents to southeastern Indiana and northern Kentucky has boosted numbers in those locales.

On average, approximately 68% of the 2.2 million person Cincinnati region was born in the state where they currently reside. Meanwhile, Uptown and Cincinnati’s northeast suburbs appear to be the only parts of the region that are actually attracting newcomers to the region.

Another key finding here is the utter lack of movement of people into or out of Cincinnati’s western suburbs, which have a native born population between 80-100%. This number is roughly comparable to most rural areas in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

The Cincinnati region, however, is not alone when it comes to a stagnant population.

While Columbus was seen as a leader amongst big cities in terms of its domestic migration rate, it appears that Columbus is merely attracting new residents to its region from elsewhere in Ohio. Almost the entire Columbus MSA has a native born population between 60-80%.

The numbers are even worse for the Cleveland MSA, which, on average, has a percentage of native born population higher than the average for Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. This is in spite of the Cleveland MSA attracting more international migrants than any other in the three-state region.

Even though Cincinnati continues to post modest annual population growth, it continues to be on the outside looking in when it comes to North America’s most economically successful cities. If Cincinnati wants to just focus on attracting existing Americans to the region, then it should look to Houston, Dallas or Atlanta, which are all hubs for domestic migration.

This scenario, however, seems unlikely since each of those regions is positioned uniquely in terms of their economy or their geographic location. So, if Cincinnati is to really ramp up its population growth, it better look at what other metropolitan regions are doing to make themselves more attractive to international migrants.

Perhaps Mayor John Cranley’s new, yet-to-be-unveiled initiative can help with this. But does he or his administration actually know what is going on underneath the hood?

  • matimal

    these are pretty raw numbers. In this time of inequality, it’s how rich, educated, and connected the individuals are that matters. large numbers of semi-skilled people is one things, such as in Atlanta or Houston. Concentration of higher-skilled people is another, a la Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Boston. how hard is it to do a similar analysis by income and education?

    • I’m not aware of ACS data that includes this kind of information. While it may be interesting to look at, I’m not sure it’s possible with interim data. With that said, I don’t know that I entirely agree with your assertion that it’s only rich, educated and connected individuals that matter when it comes to migration.

      As P&G knows very well, you need lots of consumers of modest means buying modest stuff in order to enrich the rich, educated and connected. Or as P&Gers might put it, “Sell to the classes; live with the masses. Sell to the masses; live with the classes.”

    • matimal

      All the new investment in downtown and otr is driven by the concentration of wealth in the professional classes. That is who is or will be buying the new condos, renting the new apartments, staying in the new hotel rooms, working in the new offices, and shopping in the new chic-chic boutiques. If its working for Cincinnati’s center, can’t we increasingly make it work for the metro overall? We’ll never be able to compete with Houston on price, or Columbus on flatness. We’ll have to compete with knowledge centers on overall quality of life available at a given income.

    • The latest 5-year estimates DO have some education and income data,
      which I think it would be extremely interesting to look at. We may be
      holding steady at 60,000 in, 60,000 out, but who is doing the coming and
      going? My educated guess, open to empirical verification, is that the Cincinnati metro is losing educated white and black natives while gaining educated Chinese and Indians.

    • matimal

      My point exactly, though I’m uninterested in their ethnicity. Someone whose arrived with a $100,000 income is ‘worth’ far more to Cincinnati and someone whose left with a $20,000 income at the same time represent a large net improvement in Cincinnati’s financial position. The population numbers would not reflect the net economic growth that this example would create for Cincinnati.

    • What gives you the impression that the region is gaining educated Chinese and Indians? If I were to take an educated guess, I would say there is an increase in Guatamalans and potentially even Colombians of modest backgrounds. The increase in Chinese seems to be largely university driven, and I would assume we are losing just about as many each year as we gain due to migration back home or to other regions.

    • There are tons of not-college-age asians in various parts of the northeast and southwest suburban clusters. Many more than are in the uptown area. My best understanding from other vectors is that this is mostly Chinese with a solid contingent of Indians(who seem to consistently answer ‘asian’ on the census). A great many of them were born in asia. I’m attaching a screenshot showing a decile-scaled choropleth of raw numbers of people born in asia. This is at the tract level, ignoring tracts estimated to have no people born in asia.

      The effect in the map is of course exagerated by the decile-color grouping, and my ignorance of zero-values.

      There are definitely many guatemalans, not sure about the columbians, but I recall that both their numbers are relatively much smaller.

      Edit: Whoops. Image attachment is tricky.

    • I know there are a lot of Asians living in the northeast suburbs, but I wasn’t asking about that. I was asking what gave you the impression that the number of educated Chinese and Indian residents is growing? I know that Guatemalans and Colombians make up a much smaller percent of the overall population, but that they were possibly growing at a faster rate.

    • My guess is that the generally richer and better educated suburban belts will have richer and better educated asians than people in the rest of the metro. Many of those asians are new to the country…and that’s about as far as my spatial reasoning takes me. There are fields in the census data that can answer this better than my shaky memory and intuition.

      I haven’t compared year-to-year data much yet, so I can’t really comment on growth *rates*.

  • Can someone unpack this a bit for me?
    “As many demographers and social scientists have pointed out, focusing
    public policy on retaining existing talent is a bad approach.”
    It runs against my intuition.

    • matimal

      The idea is that it is better to attract the people you want than to just desperately cling onto those you have. The theory is that you get a better mix of skills and businesses that way.

    • The concept of “retaining existing talent” is one that The Urbanophile and written/talked about many times. Most people who have gone through college or have a professional career do not live in the same place their entire life. Often, people from a city like Cincinnati will move to a bigger city like New York and end up back in Cincinnati later in their life, but that’s not always the case.

      On one hand, Cincinnati should be proud of the fact that we’re generating talent that ends up working around the world. A lot of the students who graduated from my major ended up in cities where media production is a bigger industry (especially LA or New York).

      On the other hand, Cincinnati needs to try to attract talent (not necessarily the same individuals) by offering more of the things that other cities provide. We already do pretty well in terms of the fine arts, parks, museums, the zoo, etc. One of the reasons I am such an advocate for better public transportation is that most other cities the size of Cincinnati provide better transit options that what Cincinnati provides, and we’re not going to be competitive until we do the same.

    • The whole concept of expending public resources to combat Brain Drain is becoming an increasingly dated concept. The most prominent band consistent people writing, speaking and researching this would include Aaron Renn, Jim Russell and Richard Florida. But I would say that arguments presented by many economists also aligns with this emerging consensus.

      The main idea is that you should be expending these resources on attracting new people. This will either offset the loss of existing residents, as is the case in NYC, Chicago and LA. But if you’re also retaining many of your existing residents then it will simply serve as a healthy injection of additional people into your region. Trying to stem Brain Drain is akin to running in place.

    • TimSchirmang

      I think I’m with you Nate that this statement seems too simple. There’s a couple extra considerations that should be worked into the mix: First, what are the marginal costs and benefits of each approach? For a given unit of public resource (time and money), how much talent can be retained versus how much talent can be drawn into a region from outside? Second, unless public policy is strictly limited to the short term, there is a necessary retention component – i.e. once you successfully attract new talent to a region, doesn’t it make sense to expend at least some energy on keeping them there?

    • Universities in Cincinnati produce high-quality talent in the areas of fashion design, performance art, music, architecture, industrial design, law, business management, and culinary arts. How is it possible, or even feasible, to expect to retain these graduates. Should Cincinnati really be competing with New York and LA in terms of fashion design or performance art?

      Beyond those specific examples, Cincinnati has a large number of high quality universities. Many of these are institutions with large enrollment. It’s an asset of ours since many cities do not have anywhere near the quantity or quality of universities. Since our region produces so many college graduates, it only seems natural that many of them leave. The trick is getting new people to fill their spot.

      Perhaps that’s what you’re getting at with your last comment about retention, which I think is slightly different from how I think about most anti-brain drain initiatives.

    • TimSchirmang

      Certainly if the region produces more grads than it can provide opportunities to, a migration outward has to happen. And I am not suggesting that retention as a worthwhile goal means perfect retention or anywhere close. But since we have DAAP in the neighborhood, I don’t think public policy efforts to attract related industry (and hence retain these grads) are a waste of time. The risk in not providing local job opportunities is that eventually you lose the university program creating the talent.

      As a sort of side note, the expansion of telecommuting will impact this migration stuff in interesting ways no doubt.

    • It seems like it would also become quite a messy business trying to define what efforts were aimed at getting new people and which keeping old. I suspect that in the long term at least, the same strategies would be effective (or not) with both groups.

  • TimSchirmang

    Randy, what is going on beneath the hood?

    • The region’s modest population growth is solely attributable to births outpacing deaths. The region is losing domestic population to Columbus, but gaining population from Cleveland. Overall, Cincinnati loses more American citizens to other places around the country than it gains. The region had an immigration rate lower than most all other large metros in the US, which can often be attributed to micro systems and networks that provide support, knowledge and an overall infrastructure for people from one community elsewhere in the world to consistently migrate to another region (kind of like all the Bavarians that moved to Cincinnati in the 1800s. Furthermore, Xavier, UC, Miami and NKU act as talent exporters due to their diverse and high-quality programs. The region, however, doesn’t have an equally large and diverse job market that is attracting enough new young talent to replace what we are sending elsewhere.

    • matimal

      I don’t think you can say “soley attributable to births outpacing deaths.” Some people DO move to Cincinnati.

    • The region had a net migration loss. More people moved out than moved in. If it weren’t for births outpacing deaths at the rate they did, then the region would have posted a loss in population.

    • matimal

      and if no one moved to Cincinnati its losses would be greater than they are. This is a multifaceted issue.

    • And if no one left the region the gains would be much more.

    • matimal

      My point exactly. There are varied streams of people flowing in and out of the region. No one of them exists in isolation from the others or in unimportant to understanding Cincinnati’s demographics.

    • I don’t understand your point. Of course if no one left we would have more people, and if fewer people came we would have less. My point, and the point of using net migration as a standard metric, is to look at how many people are coming and going overall. Our migration numbers are not what resulted in the Cincinnati MSA posting a population gain…that’s because more people left than came.

      Perhaps growth is not what the region needs. Perhaps it is only the growth of certain kinds of people like you suggest. Those are all preferences that need to be weighed. But I’m not sure how you can say we gained people through migration when more people left than came.

    • matimal

      “Gain” and “net gain” are to very different things. Every “gain” counts on its own terms. The contributions of a new arrival to Cincinnati are not somehow undone by a departure of someone else. The arrival of one professional and the departure of one low-skilled person are a clear net gain to Cincinnati.
      I’m arguing that where people are from and where they go to doesn’t matter any more than where they are. Making a fundamental distinction between domestic births and the movement of adults to Cincinnati is not as important as many have suggested. Nor is the difference between someone coming to Cincinnati from Seattle and someone else coming from Italy. In the end, wherever you go, there you are.

    • I think you bring up an interesting point to discuss. I understand what you’re saying about all gains and losses being equal. But it appears as though you’re painting a rosier picture about Cincinnati than what may actually be the case.

      For example, had births not outpaced deaths at the rate that they did, all things related to migration aside, then the region would have posted a population loss. In that case, where does your argument stand at that point. Heck, both Cleveland and Detroit have more people migrating to their regions from outside of the U.S., but that isn’t enough to offset the outflow of existing residents, or any matter of births/deaths.

      I am not trying to make a point about one set of migrants or population growth as being superior to another. I’m just pointing out that more people leave the region on an annual basis than those that move in. This is what many would call people “voting with their feet”, and perhaps that means there is some sort of a problem. Maybe not, but I would venture to say that there is, especially considering the region’s consistently stable economy.

      In the end, you’re right, this is still not a deep enough analysis of what we need to be considering. That’s why I think regional political and business leaders should fund a comprehensive study of the matter before crafting any public policy in an attempt to change things. Like I said, we need to know what’s going on underneath the hood. I think we’re in agreement on that.

    • I think, at least for the most recent five-year ACS estimates, that it’s more accurate, or perhaps less potentially misleading, to say that we’re probably breaking about even right now. Relative of course to other cities, which are, as the map shows, wildly unbalanced compared to Cincinnati.

  • Craig Hochscheid

    “Another key finding here is the utter lack of movement of people into or out of Cincinnati’s western suburbs, which have a native born population between 80-100%”

    No surprise there, the Westside is (for the most part) provincial, xenophobic and intolerant. I can’t imagine why anyone relocating to Cincinnati would want to live there.

  • matimal

    Yet, Cincinnati’s MSA has had 1.7% job growth and Columbus has had only 0.9% in the last year with both adding about 75,000 jobs since 2010, for example. http://www.bls.gov/eag/. What IS going beneath the surface of these population numbers?

  • Steven Fields

    Cincinnati needs to do some advertising in these international markets. Paris would be a start wince we do have a direct flight to it. Who funds Cincinnati USA? The whole metro should pay for this advertising instead of just the city while these suburbs enjoy the benefits without sharing in the costs.

  • Matt Jacob

    Looking at state of residence born is probably the worst way to look at the Cincinnati area since it’s made up of not 2, but 3 different states. It’s no surprise that Columbus and Indianapolis do well here since they are in the middle of their states and that Louisville had similar red like ours. Personally I think these borders skew a lot of our numbers and make apples to apples comparison hard for the layman to understand.

    I don’t know what form the data is in, but I’d like to see MSA born migration paterns instead, maybe through using zip codes. Ultimately I view MSA growth as the metric we should strive for, because even if they live in Batavia, Florence, or Lawrenceburg they tend to commute into Cincinnati and spend money to drive our economy.

    Knowing the racial and even more importanly socioeconomic make up of the people coming and the people going is also crucial. We shouldn’t assume that 1 in 1 out is equal.

    • Unfortunately, the census doesn’t provide anything on birth inside-the-MSA. MSA boundaries change pretty regularly which would probably complicate things for them–they’d have to keep track of actual addresses which of course change themselves. The state-nativity data is an estimate at the census tract level based on the results of the American Community Survey(ACS).

      For what it’s worth, the in-state nativity figures line up with the foreign nativity-figures in a way that makes me pretty confident that what they show isn’t terribly misleading if you keep an eye on the state boundaries. I don’t think it dramatically skews the MSA as a whole relative to central cities.

  • cinserious

    The problem with Cincinnati is it lacks a national identity. Sure, everybody knows the Reds and Bengals and Skyline chili but that’s it. In recent years the Cincinnati regional tourism council has done an excellent job with the ‘Cincinnati USA’ campaign and that should be kept up. The next step is to build an identity and focus on that so ‘Cincinnati USA’ can go national.
    Cincy can never compete with the Texas cities, Florida cities and the East Coast but we can be a star attraction for a large part of the country. The focus must be on attracting young people between 21 and 40 years old for the purpose of work, school, or play. We do have some resources available to us that can make us more attractive to young people otherwise considering Seattle, Portland, Denver, San Fran. For instance Cincy has great parks and plenty of tree filled neighborhoods; perhaps the riverfront can be further taken advantage of for recreation; beautiful hills and vistas; streetcar system underway as an alternative mode in and around the core. The cost of living is also very affordable.
    Maybe a partnership between UC and area businesses can spur development as a new job market hub that would make the city uniquely attractive to young people fresh out of college anywhere in the Midwest.
    The most important unique resource Cincinnati has is OTR. Development is finally underway and revitalization is progressing at blazing speed. As this continues, the Tourism council should start thinking about formulating a national campaign that incorporates OTR and its rich brewing tradition and German roots. An idea that was kicked around by an Ohio congressman recently was to create drinking zones in cities (amount of zones based on population), that would allow partygoers to bar hop from pub to pub or club or music venue with open containers on maybe blocked streets. I envision an OTR with many outdoor biergartens and breweries in a sort of an old German-type brewery district. All summer long the streets in this district can be blocked off from Friday night to Sunday night with plenty of lighting and police presence making sure people are safe. This unique district would be very specific to Cincinnati because of the historical content involved and it would bring in many young entrepreneurs from other states (like Rhinegeist from San Fran) to open breweries, bars, pubs, night clubs, dance clubs, musical venues and of course biergartens! With the right marketing and promotion, people from around the country would want to see what its all about.
    I initially got this idea about a year ago on a quick trip to New Orleans. I was amazed at how much focus is put on the French Quarter with all the historic buildings and sights and sounds. The city promotes the hell out of it and its a unique resource not to be found anywhere else. Its N.O.’s identity. It made me wonder why cant we have that in OTR? We have the historic buildings, the German history, and the centuries old brewing heritage. People from Cincinnati already know their own history. Now its time to shout it out to the world what our own unique identity really is.
    There are a lot of people getting the urban core going forward but I feel we still need leadership in uniting everything to push for a national identity and market our city in a way no other city can claim.