What makes the number remarkable for Wisconsin is not that a lot of people are leaving- that's been fairly common in some parts of the Midwest for the last few decades due to deindustrialization and people seeking warmer weather (and indeed, Illinois and Michigan end up on this Top 10 list as well). But what it does show is a reversal of the trend of the last 20 years in Wisconsin.
When I saw this Forbes article, I went to the Census Bureau's site, and saw that it had recently come out with its annual list of state-to-state migration patterns for 2011, and I wanted to take a look and see how Wisconsin measured up. What I found out surprised me when I compared Wisconsin to our Midwest neighbors. The figure of net migration compares the number of people who leave vs. those who come in.
Net migration, Midwest 2011
That's right, Wisconsin was the only state in the Midwest to get more people coming in than going out in 2011. And as the Wisconsin DOA wrote last year, that was basically the trend we'd had for the previous 20 years, attracting people from other parts of the country. The Wisconsin DOA did its latest demographic projections last July, and page 11 of the report notes that Wisconsin gained an average of more than 20,000 people a year in both the 1990s and the first part of the 2000s, before starting to have people leave with the declining economy in the later 2000s.
Wisconsin net migration, 1990-2010
What's also interesting in the DOA report is that a lot of the moves are very specific to age, as Wisconsin often have youth move in, college grads leave (often for bigger cities like Chicago or New York), and then have many young families "boomerang" back to the state once they get their careers and families established.
In Wisconsin, recent decades have been marked by net gains of young people ages 0-4 through 15-19 (the latter group being affected by the influx of out-of-state students attending Wisconsin’s many universities and colleges), out-migration in the post-college cohorts ages 20-24 and 25-29 (sometimes through 30-34), and then gains in "young families" cohorts starting with ages 30-34 or 35-39. Adult migration tends to taper off through about ages 60; beyond that age—early retirees onward—migration tends to be neutral, slightly higher in some decades and slightly lower in others...This pattern, or "signature," tends to hold across time: in decades with strong positive net gain, all of these rates will rise, usually with the strongest increases in the young-adult categories; in decades of net out-migration, all of these rates will fall, with the largest drops occurring among younger adults.And this is where the policies of Fitzwalkerstan come into play. How are you going to get those young adults and young families to come back to Wisconsin when the state's education, open-mindedness reputation, and high quality of level have been debased? Young adults of age 20-40 in particular have a lot of choices when it comes to where they want to live, and they're not going to stick around or return to a place that has a regressive social and economic policy.
I know, I was one of those "boomerangers." I left Wisconsin at the start of 2000 to go to Indianapolis to try my luck there at age 25. And it worked in the sense that I improved my job status, education and salary. But I also missed the quality of life that existed in Wisconsin, and wanted to move back to a place that valued education and held a value system that seemed to be closer to my own. Being single, I had that opportunity at age 30 in 2005, and moved back to Madison, later Milwaukee, and then back to Madison.
But that was at a time when Wisconsin was still holding to the Progressive tradition and had Jim Doyle in office. And this is where you have to worry about what Walker in inflicting on this state, and its long-term effect. Because what former Badgers are seeing from outside is the state being turned upside-down, and turning into the type of neo-Confederate state that we used to rip on other places for being, saying "Thank God Wisconsin isn't like that." Well now it is, and the Forbes survey showing net migration of -10% may be an awful harbinger of what's really happening in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan. The people with talent and options are leaving, and not being replaced, which not only drives down the level of talent that is left in the state, it also stagnates any chance for growth in the future.