Imagine you are a young woman starting your adult life in the United States of America in 2022. The university is behind you; fulfilling personal and professional aspirations in a stimulating place should come next. Ten or twenty years ago, depending on your interests, you may have reflexively moved to New York or Chicago, to Los Angeles or San Francisco. But those cities have only become more expensive. The median rent of an apartment in Brooklyn is now $3,500, up 12 percent from last year, when we were still hanging on to the misguided belief that the pandemic might have irrevocably changed the city toward softer and more accessible . (In Manhattan, the figure rose 32 percent to $4,800.)
In recent years, the unsustainable cost of housing in major cities on the East and West Coasts has led to demographic shifts that appear poised to reverse the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, with both intimate and systemic ramifications. In its annual survey of where young people are moving, financial technology company SmartAsset used census data from 180 cities across the country to determine migration patterns. The most recent edition of the report, which arrived last year, looked at prepandemic data and found that people in their 20s and 30s were already leaving the country’s largest cities in greater numbers. New York was the foremost among them with a net loss of 40,000; Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles followed.
Where did everyone go? The top 25 destinations included five cities in Texas (Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Frisco and Dallas) and one in Oklahoma (Lawton, population 94,000) – states that already have abortion bans in place. Other places — Nashville, Boise, Phoenix and St. Petersburg, Florida — are in states where abortion is likely to be banned or restricted, forcing women to balance material comforts and essential reproductive freedoms. A possible and not insignificant consequence of these new restrictions on female autonomy is the undermining of a cultural and economic renaissance that so many smaller cities have experienced over the past decade, a renaissance that has in turn led to more progressive political environments.
Lorraine Hariton, the president and chief executive of Catalyst, a nonprofit that has helped companies build more equitable workplaces for women for 60 years, has reflected on these issues. “We have a staff shortage and talent is top of mind in business. Women represent more than 50 percent of the workforce and more than 50 percent of graduates. The focus on DEI is at an all-time high,” she told me. Recruitment is already a challenge. “And changes in legislation will affect the attractiveness of geography to people.”
Great local barbecue, a more manageable pace of everyday life and reasonably priced 50s modern furnishings only go as far as the benefits of compromise. “Young women might say, ‘I don’t plan on having an abortion,'” Janice Reals told Ellig, the director of a headhunting company at a Manhattan boutique, “but I want to be in a state that’s friendly to women.'” Many in Texas are already concerned about the prospect of companies changing expansion plans in the state or refusing to move there altogether. “We’ve had other social issues that have been controversial in the past,” said Justin Yancy, president of the Texas Business Leadership Council, told The Austin American-Statesman earlier this week, “but this could be a bigger test.”
It’s easy to imagine a scenario where these inequalities in governance only serve to bolster the near-imperial status of a few major US cities, further widening the economic and social divide between them and the rest of the country. Politicians in the Northeast have already tried to capitalize on the divisions; New York City Mayor Eric Adams was quick to point out that the state’s stance on social issues, such as access to abortion and LGBTQ rights, makes New York more welcoming than other places.
Last month, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker went further. He said the state could “encourage” companies in places that have severely restricted reproductive rights to move to Massachusetts, where access to abortion is readily available. In fact, the laws protecting reproductive freedom are some of the strongest in the country. If certain companies take up his offer, they would presumably take their employees with them.
The danger isn’t just that Austin, or Nashville, or Lawton, Oklahoma, won’t attract certain people; it’s also that others simply choose to leave those places behind. As a concerned friend in Alabama told me last week, the threat of the brain drain is real. The chance that superstar cities like New York and Boston will only dig deeper into talent hoarding is just as problematic.