Immigration Saved the Pioneer Valley

Hampden County is a region historically shaped by waves of immigration and migration. Springfield, the largest city in the county, has historically been a magnet for immigrants looking for economic opportunity. Holyoke, where I live, was founded as an industrial city right around the same time that waves of Irish immigrants were looking for work. And during The Great Migration, the Valley became a destination for thousands of black migrants fleeing the Jim Crow south and looking for a better life .

So I wasn’t surprised to see that immigration and migration still play a crucial role in the health of the region. I recently came upon an interesting Brookings report looking at the impact of immigration on population growth. What was striking was that for many US cities, without immigrants they would have seen a net loss of people.

migration
Source: Brookings Institute

Dark blue dots represent cities where US citizens are leaving, but new immigrants are at least partially offsetting their departure. Unsurprisingly, in areas where the cost of housing is high (northeast and California), or where job opportunities limited (the Rust Belt), Americans are increasingly deciding to go somewhere else. 

This is certainly true in Springfield:

migration_springfield
Source: Brookings Institute

In the Springfield metropolitan area, if it weren’t for immigration, the population would have declined between 2010 and 2016, presenting a few different challenges:

  1. Economic stagnation – The populations of Springfield and Holyoke have plummeted since the 1950s, leaving many buildings of all kinds (residential, commercial, industrial) abandoned and blighted. Without new residents opening businesses, occupying housing units, and shopping, the urban stagnation and blight of the two cities would have been even worse.
  2. Struggling city services – As the cost of doing business goes up, cities depend on an expanding economic base in order to pay for basic services (the most costly of which is running the public schools). Especially since Prop 2 1/2 tied the hands of cities to raise revenues, an expanding tax base is the best way to keep up with the cost of these services.
  3. Political irrelevance – Large populations bring political clout. The fact that Springfield is the third largest city in Massachusetts matters when the state is looking at new investments. A declining population means declining relevance.

The Immigration Controversy

Given the multiple studies on immigration showing the overall economic benefit immigrants confer (not just well-educated immigrants), it has baffled me that it’s such a contentious issue. But then I read an article in The Atlantic by Peter Beinart about immigration which put things into perspective.

Beinart argued that the tenor of immigration debates has polarized over the past decade (then again, what hasn’t?); today, liberals tend to deny any downsides of immigration, while conservatives reject any of the upsides (more on that here). If the large-scale, long-run impacts of immigration are mostly positive, Beinart contends, then there are many short-term problems associated with immigration.

According to Beinart, the biggest immediate impact is in the low-skill employment market. Immigrants without specialized skills coming into a region are competing, at least to some extent, with low-skilled workers already there. This could be in construction, custodial services, food preparation, farm labor, etc. A large, low-skilled immigrant presence is going to depress wages in these sectors (already low to begin with) for everyone.

The economist and policy wonk might point out that, in the long run, everyone is better off for having those immigrants (they are more likely to start small businesses, they occupy hard-to-fill jobs, etc.). But try telling that to an underpaid roofer; as John Maynard Keynes pointed out, “in the long run we’re all dead.” 

The Pioneer Valley Twist

The next big wave we can expect in the Valley is Puerto Rican climate refugees leaving the island after Hurrican Maria. Holyoke is already half Puerto Rican, and Springfield is a third. This is an interesting twist, because these folks are not immigrants – they are American citizens. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t reflective of every wave of immigrants in the past: desperately poor, leaving their lives, families, friends far behind them, and hoping for new opportunity.

I have substantial concerns about the capacity of Holyoke and Springfield to support a new group of transplants who will undoubtedly need a lot of services. State and federal authorities will be crucial to ensure that these two cities, already supporting large high-need populations, are able to effectively accommodate the education, healthcare, nutritional, and other needs of our new neighbors.

What I have no doubt about is that, in the long run, the Pioneer Valley will be healthier for welcoming these folks into our communities. There will be bumps along the way, for sure. But the newcomers of today sow the seeds of economic, political, and cultural vibrancy for tomorrow.

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