Many Black New Yorkers Vote With Their Feet for the South

In a reversal of historical trends, many black New Yorkers are voting with their feet and moving to the South. In the early twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of southern blacks moved to northern cities in part to escape southern racism and oppressive Jim Crow laws. Today, as the New York Times reports [HT: Josh Blackman], the migration is going the other way:

The economic downturn has propelled a striking demographic shift: black New Yorkers, including many who are young and college educated, are heading south.

About 17 percent of the African-Americans who moved to the South from other states in the past decade came from New York, far more than from any other state, according to census data. Of the 44,474 who left New York State in 2009, more than half, or 22,508, went to the South, according to a study conducted by the sociology department of Queens College for The New York Times.

The movement is not limited to New York. The percentage of blacks leaving big cities in the East and in the Midwest and heading to the South is now at the highest levels in decades, demographers say….

The movement marks an inversion of the so-called Great Migration, which lasted roughly from World War I to the 1970s and saw African-Americans moving to the industrializing North to escape prejudice and find work.

Spencer Crew, a history professor at George Mason University who was the curator of a prominent exhibit on the Great Migration at the Smithsonian Institution, said the current exodus from New York stemmed largely from tough economic times. New York is increasingly unaffordable, and blacks see more opportunities in the South.

Ms. Brown, who spent 35 years investigating welfare fraud for New York State, may have seemed the embodiment of the black American dream in New York City.

In the 1950s, her parents moved to Harlem, and then to Queens, from Atlanta. Her grandmother was a maid; her grandfather was a brick mason. One generation later, her parents were prospering. Her father became a senior tax official for the state; her mother was an executive assistant to the state corrections commissioner.

But Ms. Brown says New York is now less inviting…..

“In the South, I can buy a big house with a garden compared with the shoe box my retirement savings will buy me in New York,” she said.

Many of the people quoted in the Times article cite the high cost of housing in New York as a major factor in their decision to depart. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser explains, that cost is in large part the result of New York’s restrictive zoning, construction permit, and rent control policies. By contrast, Glaeser points out, many southern cities, such as Houston, impose far fewer restrictions on new housing construction, with the result that homes are far more affordable there, especially for the poor and lower middle class.

The other major complaints cited by the movers are the difficulty of finding employment in New York and the high cost of living. That too is in large part due to differences in government policy. Glaeser points out that state and local taxes are also far higher in New York City than in the South, especially Florida and Texas, which has no state income tax. The modestly higher property taxes in Texas do not come close to fully offsetting the difference.

Like their early 20th century counterparts, today’s African-Americans are “voting with their feet” for better government policies, or at least against worse ones. Obviously, today’s New York City overregulation is nowhere near as bad as Jim Crow was. But the underlying dynamic of foot voting is similar. Many of those moving may not fully understand the extent to which differences in government policy underpin the differences between the city they are leaving behind and the places they are moving to. But that does not prevent them from making effective use of information to vote with their feet in a rational way. Similarly, as I describe in this article, early 20th century blacks who moved North were able to acquire the information they needed, even despite the extremely low levels of education many of them had under Jim Crow.

Obviously, this reverse migration would not have occurred if it were not for the decline of racism in the South since the Civil Rights Movement. White racism has not disappeared from the South, but it has certainly diminished greatly. Some of the people quoted by the Times even claim that race relations in the South are now better than in New York City, though I suspect that this is far from uniformly true.